When most of us think of fortune cookies, we think of those little folded cookies that come with Chinese food. But did you know that fortune cookies aren’t from China? So where did they come from? And why do we think of them as Chinese? Join Joy and co-host Harlem as they find answers and trace the cookie’s journey. We’ll also hear from journalist Jennifer 8. Lee who wrote an entire book all about fortune cookies, plus a brand new First Things First!

Featured expert: Jennifer 8. Lee is a journalist, film producer, and author. She wrote an entire book about the history of fortune cookies called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Lee also produced a documentary about the origins of General Tso’s Chicken. To learn more, check out her website.
To learn more about the internment of Japanese Americans, check out the graphic novel Displacement by Kiku Hughes.

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JOY DOLO: Oh, great and powerful AI, what does my future hold?



Ah, here we go. You will never know if the laundry is done until you fold it from within. Well, that makes no sense. Try again, please.



OK, let's see what it wrote. [CLEARS THROAT] The grass is always greener than the buttons on the porch. What?

HARLEM: Joy, what are you doing?

JOY DOLO: Oh, hey, Harlem. You're just in time. I'm trying out my new TFCW. (WHISPERING) It uses AI.

HARLEM: TFCW? What's that?

JOY DOLO: My AI typewriter fortune cookie writer. But I think it's broken. Listen to this.



It wrote, chasing the cat will never end in popcorn.

HARLEM: What does that mean?

JOY DOLO: I have no idea. See, it's busted.

HARLEM: Hold on, Joy. There's got to be a way to fix it.




Here's your problem.

JOY DOLO: Oh, my slinky. I've been looking all over for that.

HARLEM: It should work now. Give it a try.

JOY DOLO: OK. [CLEARS THROAT] TFCW, will I host a podcast today?



HARLEM: [GASP] It says you've been hosting all along.

JOY DOLO: [GASP] It's magic.


Welcome to Forever Ago from APM Studios. I'm Joy Dolo, and I'm here with Harlem from Charlottesville, Virginia!

HARLEM: Hi, joy.

JOY DOLO: Hi, hi. Can you believe the new season of Forever Ago is finally here?

HARLEM: Right? You know what they say. Season fiver, all the wiser. At least, that's what this fortune cookie says.

JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] Oh, yeah, that's a classic. It's like time flies when you're having fun, or spill the mayo.

HARLEM: Isn't it don't spill the beans?

JOY DOLO: Who would want to spill beans? Legumes give you life. Mayo, on the other hand, should be spilled in the garbage where it belongs.

HARLEM: Oh, that's right, I forgot. Mayo is your mortal enemy.

JOY DOLO: Along with sporks, mismatched socks, and angry goldfish. What are they so angry about?

HARLEM: No mayo, sporks, or angry goldfish. Got it.

JOY DOLO: But back to fortune cookies. Our studio is covered in them.


HARLEM: Yeah, where'd you get all these cookies in the first place?

JOY DOLO: Harlem, that is a great question. Where I get all of my accidental impulse purchases, the internet. I was actually trying to order 100 boxes of Girl Scout cookies, but I clearly misordered.

HARLEM: Well, cookie mistakes are my favorite kind of mistakes.

JOY DOLO: Oh, mine too. It's just like Sheryl Crow says. (SINGING) They're my favorite mistake-ake-ake. I think she was trying to say cake, but she said mis-take. She made a mistake. And actually, it's perfect timing because today, we're talking all about fortune cookies.

HARLEM: Fortune cookies are those little folded cookies with a piece of paper inside.

JOY DOLO: You usually get them at the end of a meal at a Chinese restaurant.

HARLEM: Or when you get takeout.

JOY DOLO: Right. Sometimes they even serve them at other Asian restaurants. Harlem, have you ever had a fortune cookie before?


JOY DOLO: How would you describe it to somebody who's never seen one?

HARLEM: It's like a folded cookie with paper inside. It's like beige with tiny, like, air pocket specks in it. And it looks crunchy, and it's, like, a little bit smaller than your fist.

JOY DOLO: What do you think they taste like?

HARLEM: Like, crunchy. Kind of like an egg roll. Not too sweet. Not too, like, savory.

JOY DOLO: Have you ever had a fortune in one that you remember?

HARLEM: I think it was the one that was like, don't think too deep about a simple problem.

JOY DOLO: Oh, that's a good one. OK, I'm going to ask you about your process, your process of fortune cookies. Do you read the fortune first, then eat the cookie? Or do you save the fortune until after you've eaten the cookie?

HARLEM: I say you crack it in half. You take the fortune out. You eat the cookie, then you read it.

JOY DOLO: Oh, eat the cookie and then read it, and then your dreams come true. That's a good process. Well, the fortune cookie is so much more than a fun dessert. It's a tale of immigration, innovation, and cultures melding over decades.

HARLEM: For most of us, when we think of fortune cookies, we think of Chinese food.

JOY DOLO: But it turns out if you went to China, it'd be a lot harder to find fortune cookies than you think. That's because fortune cookies aren't from China.

HARLEM: So you might be wondering, if the fortune cookie isn't from China, where did it come from?

JOY DOLO: Well, the origin of the fortune cookie can actually be traced back to Japan.


It all started in the late 1800s, over 120 years ago. The light bulb had only just been invented, and electricity was hardly in any homes yet. Bicycles were really taking off-- [BELL DINGING] and a snazzy new attraction called the Statue of Liberty had just been built in New York City.

HARLEM: And in Kyoto, Japan, people were selling a special kind of cookie in bakeries.

JOY DOLO: These cookies were made almost like a pancake. Someone would pour batter onto a hot griddle and then fold the warm cookies by hand. First, they'd fold the circle in half into a semicircle, then pinch it in the middle.

HARLEM: It's the same shape as we know fortune cookies today, but the original Japanese cookies were a little different.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, they were a bit darker in color, similar to toffee or peanut butter, and a little bigger. When they were folded up, they were about the size of the top of a soda can. And instead of having the paper fortunes inside the cookie, they were on the outside, pinched in the fold.

HARLEM: The fortunes stuck out were the two corners met. It was like the cookie was a clothespin for the fortune.

JOY DOLO: Exactly. And instead of being sweet like today's fortune cookies, they were more savory flavored with miso paste or sesame.

HARLEM: So these cookies got their start in Japan.

JOY DOLO: And they were brought to America thanks to immigrants.

HARLEM: Immigrants are people who move to live in a new country.

JOY DOLO: My parents are actually immigrants, and they immigrated to the US from Liberia in West Africa in the early 1980s. Harlem, do you know anyone in your family who immigrated?

HARLEM: My mom immigrated to the US as a teen. She was 16. She immigrated there from China.

JOY DOLO: Oh, wow. Did your mom bring parts of her Chinese culture with her when she immigrated?

HARLEM: I mean, we used to make dumplings once every year, but we kind of stopped doing that recently.

JOY DOLO: Do you still remember how to make them?

HARLEM: Well, I just remember the little cut out circles, and then you'd just put the stuff and the filling in. And then you put water on the rim, the edges. And then you just pinch it together, and then they stick.

JOY DOLO: Mm. Was there a certain thing that you would put in the middle?

HARLEM: Mostly assortments of vegetables and sometimes chicken.

JOY DOLO: Oh, that sounds so good. That's actually making me really hungry. OK, so when people immigrate to a new place, they bring their culture with them like different foods, traditions, music, you name it. In the late 1800s, there were a lot of immigrants coming to the United States, including lots of Japanese people. Many of these Japanese immigrants came to California, and some of them likely brought the fortune cookie recipe with them.

HARLEM: So that's how the fortune cookie got to America.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. We don't know all of the details, though. Lots of different people claim to have invented the American version of the fortune cookie we know today, but one popular theory says it started with a man named Makoto Hagiwara. Hagiwara immigrated from Japan to San Francisco in the late 1800s and managed the Japanese Tea Garden.

HARLEM: I've heard of that place. It's a huge park with lots of gardens and a special house for drinking tea.

JOY DOLO: Right. As The? Story goes, it was Hagiwara's idea to serve fortune cookies to customers at the Tea House. Back then, they were called tea cakes.


MAKOTO HAGIWARA: I have an excellent idea.

WOMAN: What now, Hagiwara?

MAKOTO HAGIWARA: What if we put the fortunes inside the tea cakes and served them to customers? It'll be like a little surprise inside the treat.

WOMAN: Paper inside? [SCOFF] That'll never fly.

JOY DOLO: But it did fly. Workers at the Tea Garden started making the cookies by hand, just like they were made in Japan, and they were totally a hit. They were so popular that Hagiwara's staff couldn't keep up, so he had to hire a bakery to start making the cookies.

HARLEM: OK, so now we know how fortune cookies got from Japan to America. It was likely thanks to Japanese immigrants like Hagiwara.

JOY DOLO: Right. And over time, the fortune cookie changed. Customers in the US were used to sweet, buttery cookies, so the people making the fortune cookies tweaked the recipe.

HARLEM: They made the cookies smaller and sweeter and flavored them with vanilla and butter instead of sesame or miso.

JOY DOLO: They figured these new fortune cookies would appeal more to American eaters.


WOMAN: Wow, these fortune cookies are scrumptious!

MAN: Mm, butter, vanilla. What's not to love?

WOMAN: Why, it's almost as American as--

MAN AND WOMAN: An eagle wearing a cowboy hat eating a cheeseburger.

HARLEM: It made sense. Butter and sugar were more common dessert ingredients here in the US.

JOY DOLO: All this fortune cookie talk has really got me craving a fortune cookie. [LAUGHS]

HARLEM: Lucky for us, we're literally surrounded by them. Let's have some.



JOY DOLO: OK. Mine says, happy news is on its way. Ooh! I can't wait to hear what it is. What about you, Harlem?

HARLEM: Mine says, there might be a game in your future.

JOY DOLO: [GASP] That cookie is right because it's time for--


GROUP: First Things First!


JOY DOLO: It's the game where we try to guess the order things came in history. Today, we're testing our luck with these three cookies. Thin Mints, the popular mint and chocolate Girl Scout cookie; shortbread, which are those super buttery cookies; and snickerdoodles, the soft, cinnamony cookies that are both fun to say and fun to eat. OK, Harlem. Which do you think came first, which came second, and which came most recently in history?

HARLEM: So I think the shortbread may probably have came first because it's more like a biscuit, I've heard of.

JOY DOLO: Oh, yeah, yeah.

HARLEM: I think it would be a little more rudimentary. And there's no toppings. It's just butter cookie.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, yeah. That's a great guess. That's what I would think too. It's kind of like a cracker, like a cracker or a biscuit.

HARLEM: Yeah. I think the snickerdoodle would have came next because-- well, cinnamon, they probably didn't have that much cinnamon in cookies. It probably didn't get that popular. So, I think they were just trying something new to see if it hit.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. Yeah. So we have shortbread first and then snickerdoodle. And then you think Thin Mints would be last, hey?

HARLEM: Yeah. Because if you really think about it, it would be pretty hard to make a mint flavor that would actually taste more like mint as we know it today than, you know, like the mint plant. Like, actual leaves.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, yeah. It'd have to be really-- what's the word I'm thinking of? Like, not processed, but--

HARLEM: Artificial?

JOY DOLO: Yeah, yeah. Maybe more of an artificial mint because it is kind of light tasting, so you'd have to make a whole bunch of it.


JOY DOLO: And I bet it was pretty interesting to be like, hmm, I wonder if mint and chocolate would be good together.


JOY DOLO: So out of all three of these, shortbread, snickerdoodle and Thin Mints, which of these is your favorite?

HARLEM: Thin mints. It has to be Thin Mints.

JOY DOLO: That was so quick. [LAUGHS]

HARLEM: Especially the Girl Scout ones.

JOY DOLO: Yeah, those are really good. I have to say, I really like all things plain. I like vanilla and I really love shortbread.

HARLEM: I really like vanilla too. It's one of my top on there.

JOY DOLO: How do you feel about mayonnaise?

HARLEM: Don't like it. I don't really like sauce in general.

JOY DOLO: Harlem, I just knew we were going to get along great. Anyway, so, OK. Back to the game. So you said shortbread, snickerdoodle, and Thin Mints. And we'll hear the answers after the credits, so stick around.


Listeners, we are so happy to be back, and we want to hear from you. What topic would you like to explore on Forever Ago? What history would you like to learn more about? Maybe there's a certain invention, person, or time period you're curious about. Harlem, what's something you want to learn the history of?

HARLEM: Bowls, because it's like they hold so many different types of-- well, not different types, just variety of foods like rice, curry, dumplings, soup, cereal.

JOY DOLO: That's a great idea. Listeners, send us your episode ideas at foreverago.org/contact. While you're there, send us a picture of your fan art, like a portrait of me and Gumpy doing the splits. Can't wait to see what you come up with.

MAN: Brains on Universe is a family of podcasts for kids and their adults. And since you're a fan of Forever Ago, we know you'll love the other shows in our universe. Come on, let's explore.


ROBOT: Entering Brains on Universe.


So many podcasts.


Brains On.


Smash Boom Best.


Forever Ago.



Picking up signal. [BEEP] Smash Boom Best, a debate show. What are they arguing about this time? Tomatoes versus potatoes?


MAN: I was just remembering in 1949, the Mr. Potato Head went into production, a pivotal toy in a lot of people's childhood. And I was Googling right now Mr. Tomato Head. And the first thing that comes up is, did you mean Mr. Potato Head?




ROBOT: Hilarious.


Lorp. Signal down.


Need Smash Boom Best now.


MAN: Search for Smash Boom Best wherever you get your podcasts.


JOY DOLO: You're listening to Forever Ago. I'm Joy.

HARLEM: I'm Harlem. Today we're talking about fortune cookies.

JOY DOLO: Even though you're probably used to seeing fortune cookies in Chinese restaurants here in the US, they're not from China.

HARLEM: They're actually from Japan, and they've been here for more than around 100 years.

JOY DOLO: They were introduced to America by Japanese immigrants like Makoto Hagiwara in San Francisco. The cookie changed a lot since coming to America. In Japan, they were flavored with miso paste or sesame.

HARLEM: And the fortunes were on the outside, tucked in a fold of the cookie.

JOY DOLO: But when the cookie came to America, bakers made them smaller and sweeter, and the fortunes went inside the cookie.

HARLEM: So far, we know how the fortune cookie traveled from Japan to America. But you might be wondering, if the fortune cookie is from Japan, why do we think of it as Chinese? And why does it come with Chinese food in the US?

JOY DOLO: To learn more, we talked to Jennifer 8. Lee. She's a journalist, filmmaker, and author.

HARLEM: She also wrote an entire book about the history of fortune cookies.

JOY DOLO: Jennifer says one reason we might think of fortune cookies as Chinese is because back in the day, a lot of Japanese immigrants owned restaurants that served Chinese food, not Japanese food.

JENNIFER 8. LEE: So what's really interesting is that fortune cookies probably jumped originally to Chinese restaurants because many Chinese restaurants, once upon a time, were operated also by Japanese people because you couldn't open a Japanese restaurant in the 1920s in America because they were not interested in sushi or raw fish. So in order to survive, you'll find that a lot of restaurants were Chinese in name, but Japanese in ownership.

HARLEM: Lots of Japanese immigrants were running Chinese restaurants to make a living, and that's one reason why we might think of fortune cookies as Chinese instead of Japanese.

JOY DOLO: But there's more to the story. Fast forward a few decades to the 1940s.



The whole world was wrapped up in World War II, including the United States and Japan, except these two countries were on opposite sides of the war. In 1941, the Japanese military attacked a US navy base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After the attack, there were rumors that Japanese Americans were spies.

HARLEM: But these rumors were based on racist lies. There's no evidence to support that Japanese Americans were spying for Japan.

JOY DOLO: But even though the rumors weren't true, the US government decided to take action anyway. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered over 120,000 Japanese Americans to leave their homes and live in camps. That way, the government could monitor them.

HARLEM: We now call them internment camps, but they were basically prisons.

JOY DOLO: People weren't allowed to leave, and many couldn't contact their families to tell them where they were. Many of these people were American citizens, but they were forced to leave everything. Their jobs, homes, and belongings.

HARLEM: That meant these Japanese immigrants who had opened businesses like restaurants or bakeries had to leave them behind too.

JOY DOLO: Internment uprooted thousands of people and changed their lives forever.

HARLEM: As World War II came to a close, the US government started releasing Japanese Americans. The last camp closed in 1946.

JOY DOLO: Many of these Japanese Americans never got to reopen their businesses, including some of the bakeries that made fortune cookies. While Japanese Americans were held in camps, Chinese Americans were still running restaurants, and some started making fortune cookies, too. Over the next couple of decades, many of these Chinese American restaurant owners helped make fortune cookies more popular than ever.

HARLEM: And it's Chinese Americans who helped fortune cookies become popular. That's partly because they invented machines that could fold the cookies and put paper fortunes inside.

JOY DOLO: These machines meant people could make cookies much faster. And as Chinese food grew in popularity, so did fortune cookies. Jennifer 8. Lee, the journalist who wrote a book about fortune cookies, says the sweet treat is a product of so many different cultures.

JENNIFER 8. LEE: Yeah, I'd like to say that fortune cookies were invented by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately consumed by Americans.

HARLEM: It's kind of funny that we think of fortune cookies as being a treat from far away. Really, the cookies, at least how we know them today, evolved right here in America.

JOY DOLO: And this happens all the time with foods, especially foods introduced by immigrants. They change and adapt to become something new, like how immigrants have to adapt to a new culture.

HARLEM: It's true, like having to learn a new language and new customs.

JOY DOLO: Or having access to different ingredients, or getting used to a completely different climate. Just like people change, their foods change too. And Jennifer says there are lots of other examples of these kinds of dishes.

JENNIFER 8. LEE: General Tso's chicken was actually popularized here. Beef with broccoli is a very American dish because Americans love broccoli. American broccoli actually came to America through Italy. It became popular in the 1920s.

JOY DOLO: And there are even more examples of this, like spaghetti and meatballs.

HARLEM: Which is from New York, not Italy, popularized by Italian Americans.

JOY DOLO: America really is a melting pot, isn't it?

HARLEM: Yeah, which makes for lots of awesome foods.

JOY DOLO: Agreed.


Like these fortune cookies.

HARLEM: What does your fortune say?

JOY DOLO: [CLEARS THROAT] It's time to take creative risks. Ooh, I love creative risks like using jazz hands in Shakespeare or only speaking with an up word, inflection, or making impulsive purchases on the internet.

HARLEM: Joy, not again!

JOY DOLO: But the cookies said so. To the computer!


This episode was written by--

RUBY GUTHRIE: Ruby Guthrie.

JOY DOLO: It was produced by--

NICO GONZALEZ WISLER: Nico Gonzalez Wisler.

JOY DOLO: Our editors are--

SHAHLA FARZAN: Shahla Farzan--

JOY DOLO: --and--

SANDEN TOTTEN: Sanden Totten.

JOY DOLO: Fact checking by--

KATIE REUTHER: Katie Reuther.

JOY DOLO: Engineering help from Lewis Rynning and Derek Ramirez with sound design by--

RACHEL BREES: Rachel Brees.

JOY DOLO: Original theme music by--

MARC SANCHEZ: Marc Sanchez.

JOY DOLO: We had additional production help from the rest of the Brains On Universe team.

MOLLY BLOOM: Molly Bloom.

ROSIE DUPONT: Rosie duPont.

ANNA GOLDFIELD: Anna Goldfield.

LAUREN HUMBERT: Lauren Humbert.

JOSHUA RAY: Joshua Ray.

CHARLOTTE TRAVER: Charlotte Traver.

ANNA WEGGEL: Anna Weggel.


ARON WOLDELASSIE: Aron Woldeslassie.

JOY DOLO: Beth Pearlman is our executive producer, and the executives in charge of APM Studios are Chandra Kavati and Joanne Griffith. Special thanks to Carmen Stanford and [? Min Woo ?] Kim.

HARLEM: And if you want access to ad-free episodes and special bonus content, subscribe to our Smarty Pass.

JOY DOLO: OK, Harlem, the time is here. Are you ready to hear the answers for First Things First?

HARLEM: Yes, definitely.

JOY DOLO: [LAUGHS] Are you excited?

HARLEM: Uh-huh.

JOY DOLO: Me too. OK, so as a reminder, we're putting these three cookies in order of when they were invented. And your order was shortbread, snickerdoodle, and Thin Mints. OK. Let's see what the answer is! Oh, no.


JOY DOLO: Oh, no, Harlem. You got them all right.

HARLEM: Let's go!

JOY DOLO: Let's go! You did it. That's amazing. OK, so shortbread was first. It's the oldest in history. It's from the 12th or 13th century. And though it's surely not the only place shortbread-like cookies were being made throughout history, many people credit the Scottish for creating the shortbread we know and love today, a crisp, crumbly cookie made from butter, flour, and sugar.

Originally, Scottish shortbread was made from leftover bread dough that was baked twice, so the result was harder and less sweet than what we know today. That is incredible. I love shortbread cookies. And my husband is 50% Scottish, so I feel like it was just meant to be.


JOY DOLO: You did a good job is what I mean. Next up was snickerdoodles. The first recorded recipe was in the late 1800s. The exact history of snickerdoodles isn't known, but many believe a version of the cookie was brought to America by Dutch-German immigrants.

There are many theories about where the name snickerdoodle comes from. Some think it's from a German treat called schneckennudeln, which translates to snail noodle. It's a type of cinnamon bun wrapped up like a snail.


JOY DOLO: Last, certainly not least, is Thin Mints, like you guessed. And that was invented in 1939. And Thin Mints were originally called cookie mints and went through many different versions of the name like chocolate mint and Thin Mint with no S, mind you. [LAUGHS] All Thin Mints are made by just two licensed commercial bakers that produce all of the Girl Scout cookies in the United States.

HARLEM: They do have a tall order, probably. There's a lot of Girl Scouts.

JOY DOLO: A lot of Girl Scouts, and a lot of people that want their Thin Mints. Thin Mints were some of the first Girl Scout cookies to be commercially made, and now they're the number 1 selling Girl Scout cookie.

HARLEM: Well, that's probably rightfully bestowed on them. They are very good.

JOY DOLO: They are really good. Yeah. That's awesome. So you got them right. Do you feel good about yourself?



HARLEM: Yes, I do.

JOY DOLO: Did you find any of this information surprising?

HARLEM: Kind of, but also kind of not.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. How so?

HARLEM: Because I got surprised because the noodle snail thing, and-- yeah. And that's-- and also the first, the shortbreads.


HARLEM: Yeah. But the Thin Mints, I kind of wasn't surprised about that.

JOY DOLO: Yeah. I mean, if you think Girl Scouts, they've been around probably the most recently. That makes sense.


JOY DOLO: I think it's interesting that the shortbread was made in the 12th or 13th century. That's so long ago they were making these delicious cookies. Well, you did a great job, First Things First. First Things First champion. Join us next week for a new episode all about guide dogs.

HARLEM: Thanks for listening.


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