Here's How Fortune Cookies Get Their Iconic Shape

If you've ever eaten Chinese food in America, you're familiar with fortune cookies, oddly-shaped wafer cookies made from sugar, flour, sesame seed oil, and vanilla (their signature flavoring) that contain a paper slip with a slightly odd message inside. Pretty much everybody who enjoys Chinese food has at least one story involving opening a fortune cookie with an unusual message, and even if eating them isn't to your tastes, you'll still probably crack them open to see what fortune they hold.

You can probably guess that they're not a staple of traditional Chinese cuisine, but have you ever wondered how they're made or where they came from? How do they get that distinctive shape? The history is a little more complicated than you might imagine, but the process of making them is even more complex — and it has to be executed quickly. When it comes to fortune cookies, there is no time to lose.

The process of making fortune cookies is extremely time-sensitive

The process of baking fortune cookies is deceptively simple. They start as flat, thin circles of the aforementioned batter cooked on a baking tray. The tricky part with fortune cookies is what comes next.

As you might imagine, the batter doesn't get into that distinctive shape on its own. They have to be shaped quickly. Given their brittle texture, the process of turning those circles into a folded cookie (not to mention sticking the fortune inside) has to get done before they cool and harden, which doesn't take long. Though this was originally done by hand, today, it's largely an automated process.

Currently, the largest producer of fortune cookies in the world is Wonton Food Company in Brooklyn, New York, which cranks out around 4.5 million of the little guys each day. Virtually all major fortune cookie producers are located in America.

Fortune cookies aren't an American creation

Something as inherently silly as the fortune cookie has to be an American invention, right? Funnily enough, no. They're not Chinese, either. They're originally Japanese, based on an 1800s cracker called the tsujiura senbei made of sesame and miso that contained a small paper fortune.

So how did they evolve from Japanese to American Chinese cuisine? Racism. In 1882, in response to West Coast immigration and an influx of rail workers, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning all immigration from China for the next decade (it remains the only time in American history that immigrants were banned from one specific country). However, the demand for labor was still there, and Japanese immigrants began replacing the Chinese. The tsujiura senbei came with them and soon started showing up in bakeries and restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Seeing their popularity with Americans, Chinese restaurant owners started including them on their menus and tweaked them into the fortune cookie we know today — particularly after many Japanese restaurants closed in the 1940s as a result of Japanese internment during World War II. Since there were many more Chinese restaurants (Chinese food has been popular with Americans since the mid-1850s), once the new creation caught on, Americans associated it with Chinese food, and that's where we've been ever since.