A fortune cookie is a crisp cookie usually made from flour, sugar, vanilla, and sesame seed oil with a piece of paper, a "fortune", on which is an aphorism, or a vague prophecy. The message inside may also include a Chinese phrase with translation and/or a list of lucky numbers used by some as lottery numbers, some of which have become actual winning numbers. Fortune cookies are often served as a dessert in Chinese restaurants in the United States and some other countries, but are absent in China. The exact origin of fortune cookies is unclear, though various immigrant groups in California claim to have popularized them in the early 20th century.
As far back as the 19th century, a cookie very similar in appearance to the modern fortune cookie was made in Kyoto, Japan; and there is a Japanese temple tradition of random fortunes, called omikuji. The Japanese version of the cookie differs in several ways: they are a little bit larger; are made of darker dough; and their batter contains sesame and miso rather than vanilla and butter. They contain a fortune; however, the small slip of paper was wedged into the bend of the cookie rather than placed inside the hollow portion. This kind of cookie is called tsujiura senbei (辻占煎餅) and is still sold in some regions of Japan, especially in Kanazawa, Ishikawa. It is also sold in the neighborhood of Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine in Kyoto.
Makoto Hagiwara of Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco is reported to have been the first person in the USA to have served the modern version of the cookie when he did so at the tea garden in the 1890s or early 1900s. The fortune cookies were made by a San Francisco bakery, Benkyodo.
David Jung, founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles, has made a competing claim that he invented the cookie in 1918. San Francisco's Court of Historical Review attempted to settle the dispute in 1983. During the proceedings, a fortune cookie was introduced as a key piece of evidence with a message reading, "S.F. Judge who rules for L.A. Not Very Smart Cookie". A federal judge of the Court of Historical Review determined that the cookie originated with Hagiwara and the court ruled in favor of San Francisco. Subsequently, the city of Los Angeles condemned the decision.
Seiichi Kito, the founder of Fugetsu-do of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, also claims to have invented the cookie. Kito claims to have gotten the idea of putting a message in a cookie from Omikuji (fortune slip) which are sold at temples and shrines in Japan. According to his story, he sold his cookies to Chinese restaurants where they were greeted with much enthusiasm in both the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. Thus Kito's main claim is that he is responsible for the cookie being so strongly associated with Chinese restaurants.
Up to around World War II, fortune cookies were known as "fortune tea cakes"—likely reflecting their origins in Japanese tea cakes.
Fortune cookies moved from being a confection dominated by Japanese-Americans to one dominated by Chinese-Americans sometime around World War II. One theory for why this occurred is because of the Japanese American internment during World War II, which forcibly put over 100,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps, including those who had produced fortune cookies. This gave an opportunity for Chinese manufacturers.
Fortune cookies before the early 20th century were all made by hand. However, the fortune cookie industry changed dramatically after the fortune cookie machine was invented by Shuck Yee from Oakland, California. The machine allowed for mass production of fortune cookies which subsequently allowed the cookies to drop in price to become the novelty and courtesy dessert many Americans are familiar with after their meals at most Chinese restaurants today.
Rumors that fortune cookies were invented in China are seen as false. In 1989, fortune cookies were reportedly imported into Hong Kong and sold as "genuine American fortune cookies". Wonton Food attempted to expand its fortune cookie business into China in 1992, but gave up after fortune cookies were considered "too American".
Many view the mooncake hidden message system that was used in the Ming revolution to be a precursor to the modern day fortune cookie. By adding the covert element to the myths of the fortune cookie some have found more meaning behind the simple treat. This led to the act of removing and replacing the fortune inside without breaking for an added bit of good luck.