A fortune cookie is a crescent-shaped, hollow cookie with a paper inside imprinted with a short saying or "fortune." Fortune cookies are often presented with the bill at the end of a meal in Chinese restaurants. Each diner selects a cookie and breaks it open to read the advice or prediction inside.
The history of the fortune cookie is not entirely known, and there are several competing versions of its origins. Despite its association with Chinese restaurants, the fortune cookie was invented in the United States and may have either Chinese or Japanese roots. Some say the modern fortune cookie has its origins in an ancient Chinese game played by the nobility and members of the upper classes. In the game, the participants were given twisted cakes that contained pieces of paper with subjects written on them. The players opened the cakes and made up wise sayings on the topics specified.
A second story claims that David Tsung, a baker who lived in Califomia's San Joaquin Valley, invented fortune cookies in 1818 or 1819 by wrapping written fortunes in egg roll casings. A Presbyterian minister composed messages of goodwill for Tsung's "fortunes." The baker experimented with different kinds of batter until he created the cookie we know today. A century after his invention, in 1922 or 1923, the fortunes themselves evolved into more whimsical words of wisdom. This story is doubtful because Califomia was a Spanish territory in 1818, and few Americans and no Chinese are known to have lived in the San Joaquin Valley during that period.
In her book Madame Chu's Cooking School, Grace Chu acknowledges the Chinese parlor game as a possible historical predecessor and notes that birth announcements also have been wrapped in sweet dough and sent. She credits the invention of the modern fortune cookie to George Jung, who started the Hong Kong Noodle Company in 1916 after immigrating to Los Angeles in 1911.
Golden Gate Park in San Francisco also stakes its claim to fortune cookies in another version of their history. Makoto Hagiwara was the caretaker of the Japanese Tea Garden in the park around 1900. San Francisco's Mayor James Phelan reputedly disliked Asian persons and fired Hagiwara. In 1907, Hagiwara was restored to his cherished position, and he thanked those who helped him return to his beloved tea garden by giving them fortune cookies he had invented during his absence.
Recipes for fortune cookies appear in many cookbooks, and the basic ingredients are flour, sugar, water, and eggs. Other ingredients may vary depending on the recipe, but may include melted butter, salt, vanilla extract, almond extract, and instant tea powder. Commercial manufacturers may also add baking soda, baking powder, turmeric extract, peanut oil, stabilizing agents, and anticaking agents such as silico aluminate.
The fortunes are printed on paper that is treated to be oil- and moisture-resistant. Many manufacturers acquire preprinted fortunes from the suppliers of their fortune-cookie machines, but some create their own. Also, some suppliers produce custom-made fortunes for weddings and other occasions, or for companies to use in marketing strategies.
Baking the cookies
- 1 The ingredients for fortune cookies are mixed together to form the batter. This watery dough is transferred by a pump to the fortune cookie oven, which is circular and contains a number of shallow cups with flat bottoms (about 3 inches [7.6 cm] in diameter) in the shape of the finished but unfolded cookie. When the cups are filled with the correct amount of dough, as regulated by the batter pump, flat metal plates are placed in the cups on top of the dough. The plates flatten the dough and also allow heat to transfer through the metal surfaces against both the top and bottom of the cookie so it is golden brown on both sides. The cookies rotate through the circular oven. One complete orbit takes 3.5 minutes, which is the time it takes the thin dough to bake. In a variation of this method, the dough is poured on a griddle and the round shapes are stamped out by metal forms.
Folding the cookies and fortunes
- 2 When the cookie has finished baking, it sticks to the plate. As the plates are lifted up, a mechanical arm snatches the cookie from the plate and transfers it to a receiving area where the fortunes are added. The paper strips are sucked by vacuum onto the cookies. The cookies are pushed along to two mechanical fingers that grab the still hot cookie and fold it in half so it resembles a half-moon with the paper fortune inside. The machine then bends the cookie in the middle to its familiar crescent shape (which has been fancifully described as a pair of water wings, a fan, or an extracted molar!) The formed cookie is then cooled by air from a fan and pushed to the packaging area. Cookies are packed in small bags for store sale or large bags for restaurant use, and the bags are placed in cartons to protect their fragile cargo.
As with other food products, exceptional care is taken in meeting government regulations for ingredients and food processing. Ingredients are selected for quality and inspected when they are received. Machines are cleaned regularly, and processes are monitored continuously for product standards and safety. Because the process is fully and simply mechanized, there is little opportunity for human contact or other contamination. Very little waste results from the cookie-making process.
Another aspect of quality control enters into the preparation of the fortunes. Manufacturers of fortune cookies may sell them in bulk to other food product suppliers or distributors. The company marketing the cookies under its name may review the style and text of the fortunes; for example, the legal department of one large distributor has approved the use of approximately 1,000 fortunes that the manufacturer inserts in cookies bearing the distributor's name.
The future for fortune cookies is golden for several reasons. Chinese and other Asian cuisines have grown steadily in popularity because of their healthfulness and appealing taste. Fortune cookies are similarly popular because they are light in texture, lightly sweetened, low in calories, and fat-free. Fortune cookies have also joined the "designer foods" bandwagon. Varieties flavored with almond, chocolate, and lemon have been available for some time; but new flavors and colors like blueberry and coffee are now being marketed. The fortunes themselves have also been revamped, with lottery numbers printed on the backs of some producers' fortune papers, and with specialized and modernized sayings or quotations. Packaging has also been tuned to the upscale market with individually wrapped cookies housed in decorator tins. These gourmet versions can even be purchased from home via the shopping channels on television. Finally, "Chinese" fortune cookies have found a new home; the first fortune-cookie plant in China opened in 1993.
Where To Learn More
Heatter, Maida. "Bake Your Holiday Gifts." New Choices, December 1994-January 1995, pp. 50-53.
Herman, Jeff. "20 Lucky Hoosier Products Make QVC's Cut." The Indianapolis Star, May 20, 1995, p. B3.
Kaufman, Michael T. "Pursuing a New Market: Fortune Cookies for China." New York Times, November 7, 1992, p. 1.
"Notes from All Over: China." Reader's Digest. June 1993, p. 34.
—Gillian S. Holmes