Origins of a fortune cookie

Fortune cookies

Earlier this year we invited Jennifer 8 Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, to meet with our staff and share her insights into the mysteries of Chinese food. One topic that really caught our attention was the origin of the fortune cookie. You might be surprised to discover that fortune cookies are not a Chinese creation but rather an American one by way of Japan. I know I was surprised and I grew up around fortune cookies, although I always preferred almond cookies.

Excited about this revelation, research specialist Noriko Sanefuji went out to investigate. Armed with information from Ms. Lee, Noriko contacted Gary Ono, whose grandfather, Suyeichi Okamura, an immigrant from Japan, is one of the claimants to the original fortune cookie in the U.S.

Noriko Sanefuji (left) and Gary Ono (right)Noriko Sanefuji (left) and Gary Ono (right).

In 1906, Suyeichi started Benkyodo, a Japanese confectionery store in San Francisco. The store supplied fortune cookies (Japanese fortune cookies are a regional delicacy and much larger than the ones we know) to Makoto Hagiwara, who ran the Japanese Tea Garden at the Golden Gate Park.

Mr. Ono showed Noriko a selection of antique sembei iron kata (hand skillet mold), which were used in the Japanese Tea Garden to make the fortune cookies one at a time. Although some of the katas were plain, others had engraved initials (M.H. for Makoto Hagiwara) or had logos for the Tea Garden (Mount Fuji with “Japan Tea”). Mr. Ono was kind enough to donate three katas to the Smithsonian.

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Senbei irons. Gift of Suyeichi & Owai Okamura family, Benkyodo Co., San Francisco. Photo credit: Gary Ono.

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(Left) Senbei iron with engraved initials, M.H. for Makoto Hagiwara.(Right) Senbei Iron with Japan Tea logo. Gifts of Suyeichi & Owai Okamura family, Benkyodo Co., San Francisco. Photo credits: Gary Ono.

Benkyodo continued to be the Japanese Tea Garden’s sole supplier of fortune cookies until the outbreak of World War II, when Japanese Americans in California were sent to internment camps. Chinese businessmen used the opportunity and started to produce their own fortune cookies, selling them to Chinese restaurants, and setting in motion an association between cookie and restaurant that continues today.

So what do you think? Did you know that about fortune cookies? I didn’t even get to the fortune part of the cookie. So I’ll leave you with this question, what is the best fortune you’ve ever gotten? And for those wondering, Gary says his grandfather resumed making fortune cookies after the war ended.

Cedric Yeh is Deputy Chair and Associate Curator in the Division of Armed Forces History and Noriko Sanefuji is a research specialist in the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 10:31 am EDT in Food History,Sweet & Sour