By Maura Wall Hernandez
Mary Berry’s Florentine biscuits, a recipe she developed in the 1990s, has become a beloved staple of British dessert offerings. Creating such cornerstones of a cuisine takes a lot of effort and a bit of magic—Southern California is no stranger to the creation and dissemination of recipes that become mainstays in American culture.
Legend has it that the fortune cookie was born at a bakery in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood, where a Japanese immigrant claims to have first placed a “fortune slip,” or omikuji, inside a sweet dough cookie and sold it to Chinese restaurants throughout the city.
But unlike Ms. Berry’s recipe, there’s much debate on who the real inventor truly was. Of course the Chinese claim it as theirs, but our neighbors in the Bay Area say it was invented there.
Historians agree that it’s most likely that the dough recipe, baking method, the inserted paper slip with a cryptic message, and the cookie shape itself all have their origin in Kyoto, Japan.
Families of Japanese and Chinese immigrants to California claim to have either invented or first marketed the cookies between 1907 and 1914.
Such is the case of Fugetsu-Do, a bakery that opened in LA’s Little Tokyo in 1903 by Seiichi Kito and that still produces traditional Japanese sweets today. Kito claimed that it was his idea to place the fortune inside the cookies and sold them to restaurants—which appreciated the tradition—and thought their customers would enjoy the unique cultural touch.
Today, Fugetsu-Do no longer makes fortune cookies, but the historic bakery still operates in Little Tokyo. The bakery’s extraordinary variety of mochi treats is what keeps it on the map, along with a selection of other Japanese desserts. (See photos below.)
Other purveyors dispute Kito’s claim of elevating the fortune cookie to national recognition. Yasuo Hamano opened Umeya Co. in downtown LA in 1921 and began selling his fortune cookies in 1924. Before World War II, Umeya sold them to about 150 Japanese-owned Chinese restaurants throughout Southern California. Nowadays, Umeya still manufactures in Los Angeles and distributes nationwide and globally to places such as Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Guam, Australia, and South America.
Umeya stopped sales during WWII, but soldiers returning from abroad, and those who had been stationed in SoCal, asked for them at their local Chinese restaurants, creating an immense market throughout the country. And the rest, as they say, is history.