A Brief History of
The Fortune Cookie
An account by
Erik Sumiharu Hagiwara-Nagata
© 2008 Erik S. Nagata
The fortune cookie was introduced into the USA by my relative and great, great grandfather, baron Makoto Hagiwara, at the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco. It was served in the garden as refreshment and a part of enjoying the garden experience. And was likely intorduced around the turn of the century. (1890s- early 1900s).
This confection was long known in Japan as a 'folkcraft' and was commonly enjoyed as a part of the New Year's festivities at Shinto shrines. A folded cookie was eaten and when it was broken open, it revealed a fortune inside. The flavoring of this original form was more savory, complementing the taste of green tea nicely. It was not then a sweet confection/cookie. Its Japanese name is tsuji ura sembei. It is a form of the great varieties of rice crackers so popular in Japan. This one was then a savory cookie back then.
'Folkcrafts' are not well documented in Japanese history, but there are rare examples of woodblock prints and other documentation which clearly shows the Japanese origin of the fortune cookie from olden times. Folkcrafts can be understood as something which everyone uses, enjoys, etc. but it is so common and not thought important enough to document (similar examples are pizza, pasta, etc. -- we all enjoy them , but no one seems to know exactly the history of the item).
My family introduced the confection at the Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco and I believe my relative changed the flavoring (and variety of the sembei) to make it sweet. There are many sweet sembei rice cracker varieties in the Japanese culinary tradition and these are very palatable to Occidental taste preferences, whereas many of the savory types are not. The typical folded shape remained the same. It was baked and served in the Japanese Tea Garden while my family resided there (pre-World War II).
Our baker, Ben Kyo Do Company, began to produce them when demand became large. There were also other Japanese bakeries which produced them, but they are now gone. I have spoken with Gary Ono, one of that family's descendants and I have corresponded and became interested in the history of the cookie and we uncovered that history when I put him in touch with Yasuko Nakamachi, a then graduate student in Japan, doing her thesis on that same history. She introduced me to the history of the confection as it was known in Japan, and discovered by her research. I met Yasuko when she visited San Francisco and gave her a tour of the Tea Garden. We enjoyed our visit very much and she surprised me with the traditional flavored fortune cookie from Japan and other paper fortunes, so I got to sample the genuine article for myself. Later on, I put her in touch with Gary Ono, and the personnel of the Japanese National History Museum in Los Angeles.
Several of my late relatives and I have been interviewed by Japanese TV journalists trying to figure out the history of the fortune cookie and puzzling over how a Japanese invention, mysteriously became a 'Chinese' cookie as it went on its journey around the world. When one of my relatives was alive, he would, or would not, say a thing about the history depending on what particular mood he was in at the time. That was frustrating, so I always prefer to tell the plain and simple truth whenever possible, so that people will know as close as possible the actual true history as I know it.
Yasuko Nakamachi and Gary Ono communicated together and she sent her compilation of work at that time to Gary and myself so we cold translate and read the history from Japan for ourselves. I have given an interview to the Japanese National Historical Museum, Los Angeles, documenting what I knew up to that point in time and the project is in the works to be completed (as well as, the Japanese Tea Garden history with family album photographs). I find it so very intriguing that even though one family has a history, that same history is not alone and touches many others, just as interactions continue to do to this present day.
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. We did not think in business terms of patent or protections as is so common in the present day. That was all done au gratis, my family bearing the burden of costs.
The fortune cookie has a very simple recipe and began to be made by local Chinese who distributed it in their restaurants.
I have heard numerous arguments, stories, etc. about the history and validity of various other sources claiming to be the source of the fortune cookie and realized they were wrong and have attempted to clarify the matter time and again, here in print, once and for all, put down in crystal clarity the history of how the confusion began and explain the history to any with interest in finding out the history of such a widely popular item (some of the stories are inventions from Los Angeles area, which my family's introduction predates -- notes hidden in a bun/ other food articles -- these are NOT fortunes held within a sembei cookie/cracker).
The original way these fortune cookies were made was by hand. They are still done like that in Japan in the Kyoto region where they originated many, many years ago. Iron molds (something like a hand held waffle iron with handles) are circular in shape, depressed in the middles to hold the batter. There are examples extant with the initial MH in the mold, initials of my relative Makoto Hagiwara, and Gary Ono kindly gave me some from his family bakery's history (there are different motifs in his baking irons) These irons are called kata in Japanese and the original form is little changed from the extant examples. Of historical interest is that photographs of historical documentations from Yasuko Nakamachi detail these same style kata irons being used in woodblock prints from Japanese history.
These irons were held over heat and batter poured into them. When done, the soft cookies were pliable when hot and that is the key. They need to be folded at this stage or they become brittle when cooled. An unique fold and paper fortune insertion and voila! a fortune cookie!
I have been told (as well my grand Aunt Haruko Hagiwara Matsuishi) that people come up and introduce themselves mentioning that they married after reading the fortune in a fortune cookie. Amazing! It was also she that told me of the history of how it was done in the Japanese Tea Garden while she lived in the garden with the rest of the family.
Back then, there were only felicitous fortunes. Nowadays there are all types and different flavors as well.
Chinese have marketed the confection so the world thinks this Japanese confection is Chinese, and Japanese are puzzled why a purely Japanese invention has circled the globe and become 'Chinese'. I hope to have explained things here and cleared the mystery.
To sum it up, the fortune cookie originated in Japan as a savory confection, was introduced to the world in San Francisco by my family and changed to become a sweetened cookie. Others took it and began to market it as their own, denying the true history with subjective bias, or omission, or just ignorance. It has become a universally known and loved pleasantry and thus with correct history is now presented in its accurate entirety.
Erik Sumiharu Hagiwara-Nagata
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