National Fortune Cookie Day
annually on July 20th
A complimentary treat that is given out at Chinese restaurants following a meal, the fortune cookie may be associated with China, but it likely was created in America by Japanese immigrants, and because of this and given its ubiquity, it may be considered to be just as American as baseball and apple pie. Today we celebrate these cookies with National Fortune Cookie Day. It is unknown who created the day, but it has been embraced by some restaurants, such as Panda Express.
A trial was held in the Court of Historical Review to determine if fortune cookies were created by a Japanese or Chinese immigrant. Some uncertainty still remains about who created the cookies and when they did so, but the court ruled that Makoto Hagiwara, an immigrant from Japan, created them in San Francisco. According to this account, Hagiwara created them in 1914 or shortly before, and served them at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. The cookies contained thank-you notes, not fortunes, and in order to keep up with demand, he sourced his cookies from Benkyodo Company.
Hagiwara's cookies were modeled after tsujiura senbei, Japanese rice wafers with notes in them. A bit larger and darker in color than fortune cookies of today—with the color coming from miso and sesame—tsujiura senbei were being made in Kyoto, Japan, by the 1870s. Between the 1880s and the early 1900s, Japanese immigrants began arriving in California and Hawaii, bringing the forerunners of fortune cookies with them, and bakers began selling them in larger cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
This was at a time when Chinese citizens were excluded from immigration to the United States by the Chinese Exclusion Act. But it was also a time when Americans had a preference for Chinese food over Japanese food; raw fish was not sought after, but chop suey, egg foo young, and chow mein were. This being the case, Japanese immigrants opened Chinese restaurants. Along with the Chinese dishes, they gave their desserts—fortune cookies—out at the end of meals. The shift to Chinese Americans giving out fortune cookies may have started during World War II. At this time, Japanese Americans were put in internment camps and their businesses were closed, including the bakeries that produced fortune cookies, and Chinese Americans began to produce and sell them, at a time when they were no longer barred from coming to the United States.
The United States is still where most fortune cookies are eaten today. Wonton Food in New York and Yang's Fortunes in California are the largest producers of them, with over 4 million made every day by Wonton Food alone. Fortune cookies are baked on a round disk. When they come out of the oven, they are still pliable, and a fortune is put on one half of the cookie and it is folded over and pinched together. The fortunes consist of recommendations or aphorisms on small pieces of paper. Lucky numbers or Chinese phrases are often printed with them. Wanton Food has about 15,000 unique fortunes that they print. Fortune cookies have a bland, mild flavor, and are made with simple ingredients like flour, sesame seed oil, butter, vanilla, and sugar. But the flavor is only half their allure—the promise of a fortune has endeared these cookies to millions and has kept people breaking them open today and throughout the year.
How to Observe National Fortune Cookie Day
Perhaps the best way to celebrate National Fortune Cookie Day is to go to a Chinese restaurant and open a fortune cookie after your meal. Make sure to eat the whole cookie, and then read over the fortune and take its message to heart. (You could maybe even use the lucky numbers to pick your lottery numbers.) There are many other ways you could mark the day. Write your own fortunes and make homemade fortune cookies. Order some fortune cookies from Wonton Food. Have some fortune cookies at the Japanese Tea Garden, the spot where they were first served. Read The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.