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New Lunar Year, Fortune Cookies, and Worldwide Superstitions

2023-01-19   ◆   6 minutes read

The new lunar year, celebrated by many Asian cultures, is a time for new wishes. Many special new year desserts are served during this period. They are consumed to symbolize prosperity, togetherness, abundance and good fortune. When it comes to foreseeing your luck, one of the first things we think of is the famous Fortune Cookies. Where did this popular dessert originate from? How is this cookie evolving today? Also, did you know its representation in popular culture? What other common superstitions and prophecy methods are there? Let’s crack that cookie open and see what’s inside!

Fortune Cookies Dessert Advisor
Fortune cookies for the Chinese Lunar New Year

Fortune Cookies: What’s in Store?

Have you ever been to a Chinese restaurant and been given a complimentary cookie for dessert? Once you crack the cookie open, you will find inside a little piece of paper with a prophecy written for you. Sometimes, you will find a Chinese phrase, as well as a list of lucky numbers to go along with your fortune. 

These wafer-like cookies are crisp and crunchy. The main ingredients are quite simple as they are usually made from sugar, flour, vanilla and sesame oil. Despite the simple ingredients, these cookies are far from tasting bland! They not only taste quite enchanting but they are also a wonderful way to end your meal with a little taste of sweetness that is not too heavy or filling. Not to mention that it is also entertaining to be able to compare fortunes with your dinner guests!

The remaining question is: How did fortune cookies even come to be? Did these cookies come from China? Has the cookie changed over the years?

The Origins

Japanese researcher Yasuko Nakamachi first encountered the fortune cookie in the 1980s while travelling to the US. Almost two decades later, in the late 1990s, Nakamachi recognized the familiar shape of these cookies while visiting neighbouring shrines in Kyoto, Japan and was amazed to find out its origins. Is this cookie of Japanese origin or is it Chinese? 

After some extensive research, Nakamachi concludes that the origins of the cookie are in fact from Japan. Surprised? Let’s see what she managed to find about these cookies. The biggest piece of evidence that Nakamachi found is an Illustration in a book of stories from the 19th century. The illustration, called “Moshiogusa Kinsei Kidan”, depicts an apprentice in a Senbei store (translates to cracker) who appears to be grilling wafers over coals. A sign above him reads “tsujiura senbei” (translates to fortune crackers) and next to him, there are tubs filled with these fortune crackers.

Moshiogusa Kinsei Kidan (Discover Nikkei)

Not only did Yasuko discover the illustration, she also found further proof of this cookie being of Japanese origin. There is a fictional story from the 18th century about a woman trying to appease two other women with tsujiura senbei (fortune crackers). The story was written by the author, Tamenaga Shunsui who lived between 1790 and 1843. 

How Can You Tell The Two Fortunes Apart?

Now that we have a better understanding of the origins, there are a few interesting differences between the Japanese Fortune Crackers and the Fortune Cookies we are all familiar with. For instance, Japanese cookies have fortunes written and placed between the folds of the cookie instead of inside the cookie. The best way to describe this is to think of the shape of a Pac-Man video game character. Instead of the paper being inside its body, the paper is placed near his mouth!

Japanese Fortune Cracker next to a fortune cookie (

The batter of the Japanese cookie contains Sesame and Miso instead of vanilla and butter. As a result, the Japanese cookie is bigger and browner compared to the cookie we are all familiar with.

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A Japanese Fortune Cracker (New York Times)

As for the cookie we are all familiar with, its origins can be traced back to WWII. During that period Japanese-owned businesses were forced to shut down and unfortunately many Japanese immigrants were forced into internment camps in North America. It is suspected that Chinese-owned manufacturers discovered the cookie and took over production. At that time, these cookies were considered to be a regional specialty and were originally called “Fortune Tea Cakes” and were popular with military personnel while stationed in San Francisco, California. When the soldiers returned home and dined in Chinese restaurants, they requested these cookies after their meal and were disappointed when the restaurants in their home state didn’t serve them!

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Mass production of Fortune Cookies at a factory (Time)

Due to the high demand, the popularity of the cookie was taking the world over by storm. By the late 1950s, approximately 250 million cookies were being produced each year. During that time, Edward Louie, Founder of the company Lotus Fortune invented an automatic fortune cookie machine in order to speed up production.

The end result? This cookie is found in almost every Chinese restaurant in many places around the world such as North America, the UK, and other countries. However, the one place you would expect to find them, and are surprisingly absent, is China! While it is not traditionally part of Chinese Culture to have dessert, Americans expected something sweet after their meals. Many Chinese restaurants began offering the Fortune Cookie as a way to keep their customers happy. 

The Evolution of the Cookie

Fast forward to the eighties when this cookie became so well known, the innovator Mike Fry founded the company “Fancy Fortune Cookies” in 1988. This was the beginning of the gourmet fortune cookie! Unlike the cookies we are all familiar with, the gourmet variety come in different flavours and colours. Some are dipped in chocolate, while some are dipped in fun flavours such as strawberry, pistachio, birthday cake and peppermint bark for the holiday season.

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Fortune cookies dipped in chocolate (The Chocolate Messenger)

Fortune Cookies in Pop Culture

This cookie is now so integrated with Western culture, they even play important roles in movies.
  • Freaky Friday (2004): The main character, or plot device, in the movie “Freaky Friday” is actually a fortune cookie! In the film, the cookie plays a beautiful representation of togetherness and fortune. It brought a deteriorating relationship, between a mother (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter (Lindsay Lohan), closer together. At the beginning of the movie, we see these two characters as complete opposites and they often fail to understand each other’s viewpoints. At a Chinese restaurant, each character was given a cookie to consume during a rather explosive argument. When the duo woke up the next morning, they had somehow magically switched bodies! They each had to literally walk in each other shoes until they were able to have a better understanding of each other and be able to see things from each other’s personal perspective.
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Freaky Friday promotional poster (Disney Plus)
  • SpaceBalls (1987): The cookie also plays an integral part of the movie “SpaceBalls” starring John Candy, Rick Moranis, Mel Brooks and Bill Pullman. Lone Starr (Pullman) receives a cookie as a gift from Yogurt (Mel Brooks) for good luck. When Lone Starr’s companion, Barf (Candy) opens the cookie, an important prophecy is revealed: Lone Starr is actually a prince and he can marry the princess he saved!
  • It (1990, 2019): The movies and Stephen King’s novel “It” are a great example of how the cookie was used as a major plot device. In the movies, each person discovers that their fortune contains only one word, nothing more. Once everyone manages to piece together the words and form a sentence, it reveals the death of one of the main characters. In the novel, the cookie was used to show the reader that the clown, Pennywise, never sleeps. It even has already managed to get into their heads by revealing their fears and concerns through the contents of the cookie. Since this cookie is so common, even appreciated when dining out, one can relate to the horrors of having your worst fears revealed to you.
Assortment of fortune cookies filled with messages
Assortment of fortune cookies filled with messages 

Fortune Cookie Guidelines

Did you know there are some fun guidelines or superstitions involving this cookie? Perhaps we should keep these in mind every time we receive one:

  • A cookie with no fortune inside is considered good luck! This could be seen as a prediction that something good is going to happen to you because you are now owed a fortune and will be repaid with good luck. It could also mean that your fortune is a blank slate; You have the power to take the reins and take control of your destiny! Whatever you want to happen, will happen.
  • Don’t eat the cookie if you don’t want your fortune to come true! A common myth is if you eat the cookie, your fortune will come true. You may want to remember that the next time you get a less-than-satisfactory fortune.
  • Don’t disregard the lucky numbers found inside! Some people have actually won the lottery by picking numbers straight from the cookies they consumed.! There was even a fraud investigation due to the high volume of winners who won the jackpot all at once because they all used the lucky numbers that were on the cookie’s little piece of paper.
Closeup of a fortune teller’s Tarot cards
Closeup of a fortune teller’s Tarot cards

Common Superstitions and Fortune Telling Techniques

Now that we discovered the cookies’ secrets and mysteries let’s take a closer look at fortune-telling and some common superstitions that can be found in many different places.

  • The Number 13 – In Western Culture, this number is considered to be unlucky. This superstition is so prevalent in our culture that many offices, hotels, apartment buildings, etc. omit the 13th floor. Friday the 13th is also considered an unlucky day due to Biblical tradition since it is connected to the Last Supper and to witchcraft. On the other hand, Tuesday the 13th is considered an unlucky day in Mexico and in most Latin American countries.
  • The Number 4 – This is an unlucky number in Chinese culture. In fact, many people would not open a business or plan a special event (such as a wedding, celebration, etc) on that day. The reason why the number 4 is considered unlucky is that in most Chinese dialects, the sound of the word “four” sounds very similar to the word death.
A beautiful antique cup with a matching saucer, often used in tea leaf readings!

A  beautiful antique cup with a matching saucer, often used in tea leaf readings! 

  • Coffee or Tea Divination is having your fortune read using coffee grounds or tea leaves. Once you are done drinking your coffee or tea, the fortune teller will place the saucer on top of the cup, spins it around a few times and then deciphers the symbolism of the coffee grains or tea leaves in the cup! Tea leaves are a common form of divination in Asia, Greece, and the Middle East, while coffee divination is traditionally practised in Turkey. 
  • Face Reading is a form of fortune-telling in China. Every wrinkle, line, tooth, mole, and shape is analyzed. This will enable the fortune teller to give you insight into your life, history and future.
  • Vedic Astrology is a form of fortune-telling. The position of the stars in the sky can determine your past, present and future. This is a popular method in India.
  • Tarot Cards are very popular in Romania and have been part of their culture for centuries! Similar to a common deck of cards, they are used as a divination tool.
  • Palm reading (palmistry or chiromancy) dates back to Ancient cultures such as Babylonia, Arabia, Canaan, Persia, India, Nepal, Tibet and China. Later on it was also adopted in Greece. It is believed that each line on your hand and finger can predict your future and relates back to a particular Greek God (Hermes).

Now every time we crack a cookie open, not only do we get to read our fortunes (and hopefully get winning lotto numbers!) we will be able to appreciate its origins and how this little cookie has taken over the world! Look for fortune cookies when you dine or celebrate the new Lunar Year!

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