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Dining & Wine

Solving a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside a Cookie

Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

Published: January 16, 2008

Some 3 billion fortune cookies are made each year, almost all in the United States. But the crisp cookies wrapped around enigmatic sayings have spread around the world. They are served in Chinese restaurants in Britain, Mexico, Italy, France and elsewhere. In India, they taste more like butter cookies. A surprisingly high number of winning tickets in Brazil's national lottery in 2004 were traced to lucky numbers from fortune cookies distributed by a Chinese restaurant chain called Chinatown.

But there is one place where fortune cookies are conspicuously absent: China.

Now a researcher in Japan believes she can explain the disconnect, which has long perplexed American tourists in China. Fortune cookies, Yasuko Nakamachi says, are almost certainly originally from Japan.

Her prime pieces of evidence are the generations-old small family bakeries making obscure fortune cookie-shaped crackers by hand near a temple outside Kyoto. She has also turned up many references to the cookies in Japanese literature and history, including an 1878 image of a man making them in a bakery - decades before the first reports of American fortune cookies.

The idea that fortune cookies come from Japan is counterintuitive, to say the least. "I am surprised," said Derrick Wong, the vice president of the largest fortune cookie manufacturer in the world, Wonton Food, based in Brooklyn. “People see it and think of it as a Chinese food dessert, not a Japanese food dessert,” he said. But, he conceded, “The weakest part of the Chinese menu is dessert.”

Ms. Nakamachi, a folklore and history graduate student at Kanagawa University outside Tokyo, has spent more than six years trying to establish the Japanese origin of the fortune cookie, much of that at National Diet Library (the Japanese equivalent of the Library of Congress). She has sifted through thousands of old documents and drawings. She has also traveled to temples and shrines across the country, conducting interviews to piece together the history of fortune-telling within Japanese desserts.

Ms. Nakamachi, who has long had an interest in the history of sweets and snacks, saw her first fortune cookie in the 1980s in a New York City Chinese restaurant. At that time she was merely impressed with Chinese ingenuity, finding the cookies an amusing and clever idea.

It was only in the late 1990s, outside Kyoto near one of the most popular Shinto shrines in Japan, that she saw that familiar shape at a family bakery called Sohonke Hogyokudo.

“These were exactly like fortune cookies,” she said. “They were shaped exactly the same and there were fortunes.”

The cookies were made by hand by a young man who held black grills over a flame. The grills contain round molds into which batter is poured, something like a small waffle iron. Little pieces of paper were folded into the cookies while they were still warm. With that sighting, Ms. Nakamachi’s long research mission began.

A visit to the Hogyokudo shop revealed that the Japanese fortune cookies Ms. Nakamachi found there and at a handful of nearby bakers differ in some ways from the ones that Americans receive at the end of a meal with the check and a handful of orange wedges. They are bigger and browner, as their batter contains sesame and miso rather than vanilla and butter. The fortunes are not stuffed inside, but are pinched in the cookie’s fold. (Think of the cookie as a Pac-Man: the paper is tucked into Pac-Man’s mouth rather than inside his body.) Still, the family resemblance is undeniable.

“People don’t realize this is the real thing because American fortune cookies are popular right now,” said Takeshi Matsuhisa as he deftly folded the hot wafers into the familiar curved shape.

His family has owned the bakery for three generations, although the local tradition of making the cookies predates their store. Decades ago, many confectioneries and candies came with little fortunes inside, Mr. Matsuhisa said.

“Then, the companies realized it wasn’t such a good idea to put pieces of paper in candy, so then they all disappeared,” he added. The fear that people would accidentally eat the fortune is one reason his family now puts the paper outside the cookie.

Jennifer 8. Lee wrote “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” to be published in March by Twelve.


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