At least 3 billion fortune cookies are made every year on an average, with the majority being produced in the United States. These golden cookies made with flour, sugar, vanilla essence, butter and oil, are quite popular across Chinese restaurants of the world. It is, although, mysteriously absent from the very same country it is claimed to be from, China. It’s probably because fortune cookies are actually Japanese, or so they claim.
A lot has been said about the fortune cookie. When opened, fortune seekers are met with a vague prophecy, or a puzzling number; some even include enigmatic Chinese sayings, which come with translations. Some look at it as a means to take a quick glimpse into the future, whereas some eat a fortune cookie for the mere purpose of satiating a dessert craving.
Whatever be the case, the fortune cookie is claimed to have been introduced by a Japanese immigrant in the US - Makoto Hagiwara, a California-based landscape architect, with a ‘thank you’ note hidden inside it.
A debatable past
After being fired by an anti-Japanese mayor and later reinstated by a new mayor, Hagiwara is claimed to have made the very first batch of fortune cookies during the 1900s. As a token of gratitude to those who stuck by him during the hard times, Hagiwara served these cookies.
"My family introduced the confection at the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco, and I believe my relative changed the flavouring to make it sweet…. As my family was from the nobility, they only considered that invention and introduction of the fortune cookie as a pleasant refreshment to be enjoyed while strolling the garden and enjoying oneself," Hagiwara's great-great-grandson, Erik Hagiwara-Nagata, explained in a 2008 blog post.
However, not a lot of people agree to this theory of the fortune cookie’s past. Many claim that it was, David Jung, a Chinese immigrant, who founded the Hong Kong Noodle Company while living in Los Angeles, who invented the cookie in 1918. It is believed that Jung was concerned about the poor who couldn’t afford meals, so he created a cookie and hid a strip of inspirational verses written for Jung by a Presbyterian minister.
Interestingly, Yasuko Nakamachi, a Japanese researcher, who said that the fortune cookie was mentioned in a Japanese cookbook 30 years before the claims by Hagiwara and Jung were made, argues these two theories. The plot thickens….
According to nationalgeographic.com, “Nakamachi found compelling evidence that traces the cookie’s origins to Japan, including an 1878 book (Moshiogusa Kinsei Kidan) about an apprentice in a senbei store (essentially, a bakery). In the book, the apprentice is making tsujiura senbei, or ‘fortune crackers’. So, these ‘crackers’ appeared in Japan almost 30 years before Japanese and Chinese immigrants in California claimed to have invented them.”
While the origins of this dish continue to remain a mystery, aren’t you curious to know how the fortune is placed inside the cookie?
Adding the ‘fortune’ in fortune cookies
Fortune cookies often come at the end of a meal in a Chinese, and very rarely Japanese, restaurant. Traditionally, the fortunes were phrases about life, as written by Confucius, who was a famous Chinese philosopher from the sixth century BC. However, today it’s transformed into a more relatable strip of paper that often features advice, quotes and even lottery numbers.
The addition of the ‘fortune’ relies solely on one ingredient, which is sugar. The dough for fortune cookies batter for fortune cookies is usually composed of sugar, flour, water and eggs (optional). When warm, the dough is flexible and can be moulded into several shapes. The dough is rolled into palm-sized balls, which are then rolled and flattened.
The strip of paper is folded and placed in the centre of the dough and the dough is folded in half, giving the impression of a semi-circle. The tips of the semi-circle are then brought together, after which it is left to cool. Once cooled, the sugar in the dough hardens to give a clean, crisp and shiny cookie.
While it was a labour-intensive process when it was first introduced, the development of technology paved the way to automated fortune cookie machines, which produce a minimum of 200 kilograms of fortune cookies per hour.
Today, fortune cookies are an integral part of the American-Asian cuisine, and have filtered into popular culture as well. People from across the world over can even customise the note in your fortune cookie and gift it to a loved one, giving it a more meaningful end to a meal.
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