Unwrapping the California Origins of the Fortune Cookie

6 min
A couple enjoying fortune cookies and tea at the Japanese Tea Garden in 1941, just one year before the internment of citizens of Japanese descent in the United States. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

What comes with the check at almost every Chinese restaurant? Fortune cookies. Like orange slices after a blood draw or apples at San Francisco's Fillmore, they're a given. But how did they come to be? Are they really Chinese? And if so, why do they serve them at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park?

Tea cookies and green tea served at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

On a chilly morning, I meet Steven Pitsenbarger at the front gate of the Tea Garden. He's a gardener here and a bit of a historian.

"I think a lot of people put the Japanese Tea Garden in the same box as Alcatraz or Fisherman's Wharf," Pitsenbarger says. "But we are really a gem that's for San Francisco — just as much as it's for the tourists."


He tells me the garden was originally an exhibit in the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, then tended by a landscape architect named Makoto Hagiwara.

"He was an early immigrant from Japan," says Pitsenbarger. "He came a decade before most Japanese immigrants came. A lot of folks came in the late 1880s and 1890s. But he came in 1878."

Hagiwara started serving visitors fortune cookies along with green tea in the garden’s tea house.

Makoto Hagiwara and his daughter in 1924.
Makoto Hagiwara and his daughter in 1924. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

"The story that I understand is he took a Japanese cookie, senbei, and he got the idea to put a little note in it, and originally started making the cookies by hand here with just a little flat press," says Pitsenbarger. "They would fold the cookies while they were still fresh.”

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Wow. So this could be the birthplace of the fortune cookie?

I didn't see anything that marked this historical culinary invention until we went to the gift shop. Mounted to the top of a display case are two small black iron presses with long, thin handles.

They're called kata, and are used to make senbei or Japanese crackers. Inside they're engraved with an H and an M — inverted they would appear on the cookies as MH for Makoto Hagiwara.

"If you came to the garden while he was managing it, everything had his name on it. Napkins would say M. Hagiwara. There would be pots in the garden with M. Hagiwara ... tea pots, tea cups. His name was everywhere, and the fortune cookie is one of those things that helped to spread his popularity," Pitsenbarger says.

And make the cookies popular, too. But since each fortune cookie was being made by hand, demand became too much for the Hagiwara family. Makoto asked a local confectionary shop, Benkyodo, to take over making the cookies.

Benkyodo on San Francisco's Geary Boulevard in 1906. (Photo Courtesy: Gary T. Ono)

Suyeichi Okamura opened Benkyodo in 1906 and after a few moves, it's located today at Sutter and Buchanan in San Francisco's Japantown. His grandson, Gary T. Ono, is the family's historian and has written articles about his family's connection to the fortune cookie.

Gary T. Ono's grandfather, Suyeichi Okamura, opened Benkyodo in 1906. (Photo Courtesy: Gary T. Ono)

I went to visit Ono in Los Angeles, in his apartment in Little Tokyo. A giant foam fortune cookie hangs in the living room, and the fortune poking out of it reads: “Made In Japan.”

Ono drags out a heavy suitcase from a closet and pulls out several kata  wrapped in newspaper. They sport the familiar initials: MH.

"My grandfather was a service person to Makoto Hagiwara," Ono says. "And advised Hagiwara in converting the taste (of the fortune cookie) to something more palatable to American tastes. So they came up with a vanilla extract flavor that we know today."

This flat-iron press, called a kata, was originally used to make fortune cookies for the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. The initials MH stand for creator Makoto Hagiwara. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

He says Benkyodo helped develop a machine to mass produce the cookies for the garden, sometime around 1911.

Gary T. Ono holds two kata from his grandfather's bakery, Benkyodo. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

But Ono isn’t the only one to make family claims to the origins of the fortune cookie: A few Chinese companies have also claimed the invention, as has another Japanese sweet-maker in Los Angeles called Fugetsu-Do.

Brian Kito owns Fugetsu-Do, just down the street from Gary Ono in Los Angeles. Brian’s grandfather opened Fugetsu-Do in 1903, three years before Benkyodo opened in San Francisco. And Gary says Brian heard similar stories about his  grandfather creating the fortune cookie.

"We were never confrontational about it or argumentative. We didn't know precisely that our grandparents did this or did that," Ono says. "[Brian] even said, 'Well, if it wasn't my grandfather, I hope it's your grandfather.'"

Author Jennifer 8. Lee says you can probably trace the history of fortune cookies in America back to L.A. and San Francisco. But as a concept, they go back to Japan.

"And in Japan they're called tsujiura senbei or bell crackers," says Lee, who traced the history of the American fortune cookie in her book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures In the World of Chinese Food.”

Lee writes about Yasuko Nakamachi, a Japanese researcher whom she met through Gary Ono. Nakamachi was investigating the connection between the fortune cookies she saw in New York with a cracker made in Kyoto. She unearthed a copy of a woodblock print from 1878 of a Japanese man grilling fortune cookies.

This Japanese woodblock print showing fortune cookies being grilled dates back to 1878. (Photo Courtesy; Gary Ono)

"Around the shrine in downtown Kyoto, there are actually a bunch of families that still make 'fortune cookies' in the Japanese tradition," says Lee.

"But they're actually bigger and browner. They're made with miso paste and sesame, so much nuttier than the American versions, which tend to be yellow and buttery, reflecting the American palate," she adds.

Those cookies also have fortunes, but not inside. Instead they’re pinched in the fold. They look almost exactly the same.

But how did this American adaptation of a Japanese cracker become so associated with Chinese restaurants?

"When the Japanese first came to the U.S., a lot of them actually ran Chinese restaurants, because back in the 1910s and 1920s Americans were not eating sushi," says Lee. "You had Japanese opening Chinese restaurants because that was familiar, with chop suey and chow mein and egg fu yung."

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In this mix of Japanese families opening Chinese restaurants, they began serving fortune cookies as a form of dessert.

"Back then, they were not called fortune cookies, they were called fortune tea cakes, which is actually a better reflection of their name in Japanese," she says.

Bakeries like Benkyodo and Fugetso-Do manufactured fortune cookies for decades until 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering people of Japanese descent into internment camps.

Fortune cookie makers were among those interned. During World War II, Chinese restaurants surged in popularity and began manufacturing cookies "en masse," Lee says.

"I like to say that the Japanese invented them, the Chinese popularized them, but the Americans ultimately consume them," she says.

Gary Ono’s family was lucky. After being released from the camps, they resumed their business in San Francisco and reclaimed their property. But others weren’t: Many Japanese confectionaries stopped making the cookies after the war.

Gary Ono’s family connection to the fortune cookie lives on at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, where three of Benkyodo’s katas now reside.

As for the fortune cookies served at the Japanese Tea Garden? They now come from Mee Mee Bakery in San Francisco's Chinatown.

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