The fortune cookie is one of the most iconic and festive parts of the Chinese food takeout experience, but there’s more to this humble treat than meets the eye. While it is largely associated with Chinese food restaurants and take-out meals, the fortune cookie doesn’t actually come from China. It is very much a representation of Asian American immigration history, where the crossroads of food, culture, and tradition lead to an entirely new cuisine or dish all its own.
Here at Fly By Jing, we work to combine the classic flavors with the future of personalized home cooking through spices, oils, recipes, and history.
What Is a Fortune Cookie?
The fortune cookie is a sweet and crunchy treat that is delivered at the end of a meal when ordering Chinese food takeout or eating. Its defining feature is the fortune, however—the slip of paper with words of wisdom on one side and lucky numbers written on the other.
They are made with flour, sugar, vanilla, and sesame oil or butter and have a classic snap when they are broken or eaten. Several billion are produced every year, and many folks swear that their lucky numbers have won lottery pots or led to other good fortunes.
History of the Fortune Cookie
In addition to the wisdom available in the cookies, fortune cookies have a history shrouded in legend and myth themselves. While the fortune cookie has become ubiquitous and associated with Chinese food takeout and even in-house dining, there’s a good possibility that it actually derives from Japanese culture, instead.
There are many variations of fortune cookie history, but the most likely evolution of the fortune cookie was actually developed by Japanese immigrants on the west coast of the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
A similar Japanese cookie dates back to the same era in Kyoto, Japan. While it had some notable differences, it bears a notable resemblance to modern fortune cookies as well. The original cookies inspired by Japanese tea cakes were larger and featured more traditionally Asian flavors, including sesame oil and miso, whereas American fortune cookies are made with sugar and butter.
They both carry a fortune, however. The Japanese cookies had a type of fortune called O-mikuji, which means “sacred lot.” They did not feature famous lucky numbers on the other side, however.
At the Golden Gate Park Japanese tea garden, fortune cookies made in a San Francisco bakery were first shared, supposedly by the keeper, Makoto Hagiwara, who is often credited with having invented them.
He is not the only one who claims that title. Several others have put their name to the invention of the fortune cookie, and legal fights regarding its origins and protections have been waged. For most of the 20th-century, fortune cookies were made by hand, but recent inventions have allowed them to be produced en mass and made it easier to integrate them into Chinese take-out dishes.
How to Make Fortune Cookies at Home
Fortune cookies are easy to make at home and can be adjusted to match your palate. Use classic American Chinese food flavors or switch it up. You can also dress your fortune cookies up with sesame seeds or add food dye for a festive approach.
To start, gather your ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, water, vanilla, flour, decorations, fortunes. You’ll want to write your fortunes before you begin the cooking process because fortune cookies need to be shaped while still warm, or they’ll get too hard. You don’t want to have to worry about the writing process while you’re shaping! A baking sheet will be needed for baking, and you’ll use a glass and muffin tins for the shaping process.
Make your batter by mixing your egg whites until you get stiff peaks, then fold in your butter, water, and vanilla. Add in your flour and mix only until combined, taking care not to over mix.
Create discs of batter on your baking sheet by pouring a spoonful and smoothing it out into a thin circle. You’ll only want to do a few of these at a time since they set very quickly, and you want to have time to do them properly. If you want to sprinkle sesame seeds or another decorative element on your cookies, now is the time to do so. Bake them for five to eight minutes, just until the edges brown, and then remove them from the oven.
Flip your discs over, put your fortune into the cookie, and then begin the folding process. Fold it into a semi-circle shape and then fold over the edges of the cookie. Use the rim of your glass or mug to achieve the perfect shape and serve!
The fortune cookie might not have traditional Chinese origins, but there are some sweet dishes in Chinese cuisine that are absolutely delicious and easy to make at home. Check out foods like sweet potato dumplings for dinner or and then incorporate sweet flavors for an after-dinner treat.
Nian gao is a dish traditionally associated with Chinese New Year, and it’s not hard to see why this meal is believed to bring prosperity and good fortune. It is sweetened either with a red bean paste or brown sugar and is a very versatile dish, so you can add your own favorite flavors.
In addition to your sweetening elements, you’ll need glutinous rice flour, water, and oil for frying. Other ingredients that are often included, depending on whom you’re making your nian gao for, are ginger, vanilla, dried fruits like dates, citrus fruits, or even molasses.
To make it, you’ll bring your water to a boil, then add your spices and sugars. Allow it to cool, and then add your flours and mix. Once combined, add the remaining ingredients and any others you want to try. Pour into pans and then cook in a steamer for about an hour.
Egg tarts are a delicious dish you’ll find in dim sum restaurants, but you can make them at home with ease today. Collect your ingredients: eggs, flour, salt, butter, water, sugar, milk, and vanilla extract.
Start by combining your flour and salt, and then add your butter to mix. Put in cold water slowly until you form a dough. Cool the dough in the refrigerator for at least half an hour. Once the dough is ready, roll it out and then cut it into your tartlet shapes. There are several different ways to approach your dough, but watch the texture and adjust with more refrigeration accordingly.
To prepare the custard, you’ll want to make sugar water by dissolving your sugar in heated water and then allowing it to cool. Whisk in your eggs, evaporated milk, and vanilla. Fill your tart shells and bake for about 25-30 minutes. Allow to cool and serve.
Steamed Red Bean Buns
Chinese food doesn’t traditionally have a lot of sugar, so it gets much of its flavoring from red beans. For this dish, you’ll use red bean paste, just a few scoops each of granulated and confectioner’s sugar, flour, milk, dry yeast, and water. The great thing about learning how to make steamed buns is that you’ll be able to make other delicious buns dishes for main courses and appetizers after—and there are many to pick from!
Either begin by preparing your red bean paste or purchase some from the store. Then mix your dough by combining sugar, yeast, and water. Add milk, flour, powdered sugar, and salt. Mix in your mixer or by hand until it no longer sticks. Allow it to proof for an hour.
Make six to eight balls of your red bean paste, and then wrap them in your prepared dough. Steam for about 15 minutes, and then turn off the heat and allow your buns to cool for another five to ten without opening the steamer to avoid collapsing. Enjoy your steamed buns with your favorite pantry staples and dipping sauces.
Fortune cookies really are something sweet. They have a unique and interesting history that blends cultures and cuisines and has become something all its own. But if you’re on the search for classic Chinese dessert dishes that actually originated in China, you have a wide variety of options for those as well, like Chinese New Year recipes, sweet buns, and more.
Explore our recipes and ingredients here at Fly By Jing, and begin cooking up your own Chinese desserts—and American Chinese staples—today.