The Fortune Cookie Chronicles


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    Fortune Cookies are really from Japan.

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | January 16, 2008

    Various senbei at Hougyokudou bakery outside Kyoto, near Fushimi Inari Shrine

    So today I have a story in The New York Times that points, persuasively, that fortune cookies originate not from China, but from Japan. There is neat slideshow by Sylvia Rupani-Smith and video by Sean Patrick Farrell.

    This was probably the most surprising outcome from the research of my book, and it is one of the main reasons why the book is now called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, as opposed to The Long March of General Tso.


    Up above you can see the Japanese fortune cookies (tsujiura senbei) in context of other senbei crackers in a bakery outside Kyoto. See the family resemblance, while fortune cookie are clearly the genetic oddchild out among Chinese desserts.

    Anyway, growing up, I always thought fortune cookies were Chinese (after all, we always got them from Chinese restaurants), and I had never been to China at that point. It wasn’t until I read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan in junior high that I learned fortune cookies weren’t Chinese (two Chinese mothers are in a fortune cooking factory and one of them — to paraphrase — is like, wtf are these things and what are these silly fortunes?).

    That revelation, for me, was like learning there was no Santa Claus and I was adopted at the same time.

    My article (and part of the book) is based on research done by Yasuko Nakamachi, a scholar at Kanagawa University, who is probably the only person who is as obsessed with fortune cookies as I am (arguably more so). She spent six years trying to establish the link between American fortune cookies and Japan. (She also traveled the world.)

    There are two pieces of evidence that make her case:

    First there are small family bakeries near Fushimi Inari Taisha, a famous shinto shrine outside Kyoto, where fortune cookie-type things are being made by hand. They even have web sites. This one that shows how they are made. This one, Inariya, is located right across the street from the shrine and opened in 1918. They have a video explaining what to do with fortune cookies (click on the purple fork). I am amused that they break the fortune cookie with a hammer, instead of cracking it open with their hands.I went to one called Hougyokudou (or Hogyokudo, depending on spelling).

    Takeshi Matsuhisa, a third-generation baker, making tsujiura senbei at Sohonke Hogyokudo outside Kyoto

    The cookies are called variously “tsujiura senbei,” (”fortune crackers”) “omikuji senbei” (”written fortune crackers”) or suzu senbei (”bell crackers”).

    “Tsujiura” refers to a style of fortune telling based on the patterns of passing pedestrians that stemmed from the Hyotanyama Inari shrine near Osaka a few centuries ago. The shrine was famous, but very very hard for pilgrams to get to. So somewhere along the line, the priest there told me, someone must have decided to use the tsujiura name to market cookies to people who couldn’t make it to the shrine. To be clear, not all tsujiura senbei look like American fortune cookies — some are softer and colored. Today, the shrine is a five-minute walk from the commuter rail station, and around the corner from the DoCoMo shop.

    To be clear, their traditions of fortunes are a bit weird, but American standards. Hougyokudo puts bits of poetry into their cookies, not really fortunes. And Inariya used to do that also, but then they updated their fortunes as the fortunes became more popular with young people.

    Hyotanyama Inari Shrine outside Osaka, where “tsujiura” originated

    Today, fortune cookie -type things are sold here and there around Japan (mostly known as おみくじ煎餅 or omikuji senbei), but they are by no means ubiquitous. There are even multicolored ones and fortune cookie-brother ones which have toys in them!

    Well, you could say, how do we know the Japanese didn’t learn from the Chinese, or the Americans? Well, the second piece of evidence: an 1878 illustration from a 19th-century book that shows a young man making fortune cookies., “Moshiogusa Kinsei Kidan” (in English, “Moshiogusa Strange Tales From Recent Times”). One story, written by Shinoda Senka and illustrated by Mosai Yoshitora, shows a picture of the main character, Kinnosuke, who works as an apprentice as a senbei store.

    1878 Japanese etching of “tsujiura senbei” — fortune cookie — shop in Japan

    The young man appears to be grilling wafers in black irons over coals in a manner similar to the way the present-day bakeries grill Japanese fortune cookies. Above him is a sign that says “tsujiura senbei” and next to him are tubs filled with little round shapes — the tsujiura senbei themselves. The book, story and picture are dated 1878. Most of the fortune cookie claims by Japanese or Chinese immigrants in California are between 1907 and 1914.

    This drawing is available online from the National Diet Library (Japan’s equivalent of the Library of Congress).

    (Special thanks to Tomoko Hosaka and Juro Osawa for their logistical and translation help).

    So if fortune cookies are really Japanese, how did they end up being served in Chinese restaurants?

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    Topics: Fortune Cookies |

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