The original fortune cookie

This may shock you, but fortune cookies are not Chinese food, nor are they really Chinese-American food. They started out as a Japanese product, and were copied by Chinese-Americans in San Francisco decades ago to form the dessert staple of cheap Chinese restaurants across the US. (This was detailed in a New York Times article last year, and linked by Roy in a post which I somehow missed; I learned of it from watching the author of said article, Jennifer Lee, give this fascinating presentation on the evolution of Chinese food outside China.)

The predecessor of the Chinese-American fortune cookie is the tsujiura senbei, a cookie made of flour, sugar and miso which is sold at certain shrines. According to Wikipedia, it comes from the Hokuriku region. But after some Googling, I found out that these are still made and sold at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, and since I was visiting the city anyway, I decided to track some down. Sure enough, they were being sold in a few shops near the shrine, including one shop where they were being hand-made by an old fellow with a cast iron machine (as per the NYT article, which I didn’t discover until later).

As you can see, it’s larger than a fortune cookie, and the fortune (omikuji, actually) is held by the cookie’s fold rather than inside the cookie itself. In fact, there’s another surprise inside the cookie:

Those are dried soybeans, which serve to give the cookie a pleasant rattle as you shake it around. Hence the alternative name suzu sembei or “bell cookie.” I’m sure this was intended to please a hard-of-hearing Shinto deity, or something like that, but to me it was just an interesting modification on the fortune cookie style I grew up with.

The actual fortune looks like this:

And I’m pretty sure that it’s funny when you add “in bed” to the end. Some things are simply constant across cultures…

[Updated by Roy]

Unfortunately I had forgotten to charge my camera battery that day, but I got a few shots of the cookie making process before it died. They aren’t great, but I think you can get a fair idea of it.

What Joe forgot to mention-and this is critical information-is that they are miso flavored! There was a sign in all the shop windows saying this, and advertising that no eggs are used. Trying for the vegan market?

  1. Surprisingly enough, kind of like a fortune cookie, although a bit less sweet thanks to the miso. It’s also thicker and harder, which makes it a bit harder to eat. You really have to put a lot of pressure on it to break it open down the middle.