Fortune Cookies: They’re Japan’s Best-Kept Secret!

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A plate of fortune cookies.

Fortune cookies’ history isn’t what many people think it is, even though they are a staple of Chinese-American food. When it was first made in Kyoto, Japan, in the 1800s, the fortune cookie was called something else.

The name of it was tsujiura senbei. “Tsujira,” similar to “omikuji notes,” tells people their fortunes. These senbei were larger than their Chinese-American counterparts. They also had sesame seeds and white miso.

History in Japan

The first fortune cookies came from Kyoto, Japan, in the 1800s. They were mainly street food. However, you could also find it at places of worship like shrines and temples. Each tsujiura senbei held a fortune, just like the omikuji tradition. In omikuji, people who went to shrines would pick an end from a box, and the fortune would tell them what would happen in the future.

A basket of tsujiura senbei, which are original Japanese fortune cookies, except much larger
Tsujiura senbei is much richer and darker than fortune cookies. Image via Medium

People say that the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto was the first place in Japan to make fortune cookies. The fox-shaped senbei that they made also made them well-known. The fox-shaped senbei and the tsujiura senbei were famous for their crisp and shiny texture.

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Fortune Cookies in the United States

Tsujiura senbei came to the United States with many Japanese immigrants who arrived in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1895, Makoto Hagiwara was the first Japanese immigrant to open a restaurant in San Francisco, California. He was also the first to serve what we now call a fortune cookie.

A picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
San Francisco, California, is home to a sizable Asian-American community., Image via Shutterstock.

Makoto Hagiwara was also the first person in the United States to operate a Japanese restaurant. Hagiwara ran the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park and served the traditional tsujiura senbei to those who came there. But at the beginning of the 20th century, people in the United States were selective about the kinds of ethnic food they liked. So, the savory tsujiura senbei’s flavor profile had to change in popularity.

A picture of the Japanese Tea Garden, a restaurant in San Francisco that first served fortune cookies.
The Japanese Tea Garden was the first place in America that served fortune cookies. Image via Shutterstock

Cooks changed the traditional miso flavor of tsujira senbei cookies to the mild vanilla flavor that is more common today. This was so that the cookies would be more appealing to Americans. To better suit American tastes, the size of the fortune cookie was decreased, and the amount of sugar was added.

As the number of people who wanted these cookies grew, the Hagiwara family decided to give the big job of making fortune cookies to a local shop called Benkyo-do. They then sent the cookies to Chinese restaurants in the area.

At the time, most owners and workers were Japanese. This was because there were few exceptions to laws against Chinese immigration, and Japanese food was not very popular then. This is how the idea of getting your fortune from a cookie became linked to Chinese food.

Why are fortune cookies no longer related to Japan?

Unfortunately, things that happened during World War II linked fortune cookies and Chinese food even more substantially. After the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was president at the time, gave the order to put all Japanese Americans in internment camps.

Because of this, many businesses owned by Japanese Americans had to close, including some that made fortune cookies. This made it possible for companies owned by Chinese Americans to start making cookies. This made their connection to Chinese food even more substantial.

A man is making a curved pastry at a factory.
Fortune cookies are a multi-million dollar industry. Image via Shutterstock

Therefore, fortune cookies came from Japan, even though they are most often associated with Chinese-American food. But the history of the fortune cookie shows how people from different cultures have mixed and changed in the United States due to immigration.

This is something you can learn from looking at the cookie. Through immigration, cultural assimilation, and changes in history, the fortune cookie, which was once thought to be a traditional Japanese street food, has become an essential part of Chinese-American cuisine.

A tray of tsujiura senbei also known as fortune cookies. They are rich and dark.
Tsujiura senbei is very savory. Image via Atlas Obscura

However, tsujiura senbei is still available to everyone who wishes to partake! It’s a beautiful, traditional Japanese treat with a lot of history. Have you ever had tsujiura senbei before? Let us know in the comments below.

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