Do fortune cookies really bring good luck? You might be surprised.
In the United States, there is something that is closely associated with Chinese cuisine. Every American knows about it and has probably eaten it. You may have even seen it in movies or on TV. However, it doesn’t exist in the Chinese-speaking world outside of the United States. That something is the fortune cookie.
To find a fortune cookie to photograph, I went through great lengths to find a fake Chinese restaurant in Silicon Valley.
An American once excitedly told me a secret: “Did you know that fortune cookies don’t actually exist in China?” I wanted to pretend to be surprised and satisfy his excitement. But I thought to myself, with my appearance and accent, shouldn’t I be the one to tell him this groundbreaking discovery? What do you mean “actually”? Fortune cookies were never a thing in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong… not even after leaving the United States. Okay, maybe in Europe, but that’s still because of the influence of the United States.
If you Google it, you’ll find that for most Americans, the fact that “fortune cookies don’t actually exist in China” is actually big news. Americans who have traveled to China over the years have become witnesses to this groundbreaking discovery and have shared this earth-shattering news upon their return.
It wasn’t until recent years that Americans slowly came to accept this truth. But that may still only be limited to the East and West coasts.
The fake Chinese cuisine that hangs its hat on fortune cookie has been popular in the United States for a hundred years
When I first arrived in the United States and lived in a predominantly white town north of San Francisco, I couldn’t stand it after a few days and wanted to eat Chinese food, even if it was bad. I remember going to a Sichuan restaurant that was packed with guests. I noticed that after each table finished their meal and received their bill, they were given a plate of small, fortune cookie-shaped biscuits, one for each person. That was the first time I had ever seen a fortune cookie up close. I had seen them on TV before, but this was different. It wasn’t just a dessert to finish the meal, it was an expectation.
The guests eagerly opened the cookies and read their fortunes aloud to their tablemates. It had become a necessary ritual. Without this procedure, the Chinese meal would not have been complete. At that time, the fortunes inside the cookies were very cliché, like something Confucius would say… of course, Confucius never actually said those things.
Later, I met someone in San Francisco who had never seen the ocean in his entire life. He may not have known what the ocean looked like, but he knew that after eating Chinese food, there would be fortune cookies. The Chinese restaurants in his hometown all had them, and he believed that San Francisco’s Chinatown must be the headquarters for fortune cookies… of course, he was wrong. The Chinese restaurants in San Francisco’s Chinatown didn’t have fortune cookies because they sold authentic Chinese cuisine. If I had told him back then that restaurants with fortune cookies weren’t serving real Chinese food, he would have been devastated.
“Ah, those are all sold to Americans.”
To put it simply, any serious Chinese restaurant, no matter where it is in the world, should not have these things unless they are selling them to foreigners. If a Chinese restaurant in Silicon Valley still has fortune cookies today, you probably wouldn’t want to eat their food. It has become a symbol of outdated American-style Chinese cuisine from the last century. Ask those restaurants and even the owners themselves will feel embarrassed and say, “Ah, those are all sold to Americans.”
However, most Chinese restaurants in America still follow this path, and most Americans still faithfully follow the “authentic American-style fake Chinese food.”
If you leave the Chinese oasis, and if you can’t hold it any longer during a long road trip and are willing to lower your standards to eat some “sauce-based” Chinese food, you can find it everywhere in America, and those places are guaranteed to have fortune cookies. If they don’t, then that place is “not authentic.” The so-called “sauce-based” means that the dishes in the entire restaurant are made from five or six different “sauces,” which are mixed and matched with different dishes. That’s why every dish tastes the same. You can see American families sitting down, ordering dishes like sweet and sour chicken, sweet and sour beef, sweet and sour shrimp, sweet and sour pork… and happily sharing them in the middle of the table.
If you sneak a peek into the kitchen to see how the chef cooks, it’s just the same ingredients, the same sauce, just with different animals. In some remote areas where Asians cannot be hired, you may see Mexicans or African Americans cooking in the kitchen. This is called “sauce-based” Chinese food.
For that sweet and sour family, this is also considered authentic Chinese food. So how can they not be completely disappointed when they arrive in San Francisco?
However, even in Silicon Valley, you may accidentally come across American-style flavors – if you see someone pouring soy sauce all over their food as soon as it arrives at the table… that’s it. I once saw an American ordering three fresh soup at a Taiwanese restaurant, and when it was served, he was clearly extremely disappointed. How could there be such a bland and boring soup in the world? Isn’t seafood chowder supposed to be as thick as freshly mixed cement, and the bowl won’t even tip over when turned upside down?
Then I saw him pouring soy sauce into the soup frantically. He was probably a tourist from another state, and the next thing that will disappoint him is that there won’t be any fortune cookies even after he finishes his meal.
Today, I saw a foreigner sitting next to me at Din Tai Fung pouring at least 50 CC of soy sauce into his shrimp and egg fried rice. It’s like putting ketchup on sushi, but unfortunately, foreigners don’t dare to be so presumptuous with Japanese cuisine.
Fortune cookie messages have evolved over time. The wise words of Confucius have slowly been replaced by philosophical phrases, and sometimes even by comforting words from fortune tellers, such as “good luck is just around the corner,” “next month will bring the day you’ve been waiting for,” “you’ll get a raise soon,” etc. These are words that are vague and ethereal, yet everyone is willing to listen to them. Humor has also made its way into fortune cookie messages. A website even held a poll to determine the funniest fortune cookie messages, and some of the winners included “run away quickly,” “finally escaped from the cookie that wouldn’t let go of me,” and “you may eat something that looks like you, but you don’t look Chinese enough. Come back and eat more Chinese food.” These are examples of American-style humor.
Americans have come to expect fortune cookie messages after their meals. As for those lackluster cookies, most of them are left untouched on the plate, like discarded sunflower seed shells.
The Little-Known Birthplace of Fortune Cookies
You may be curious about the origin of this non-existent tradition in the Chinese world. The true origin is disputed, but it is said to be a modified Japanese tradition, and the earliest appearance was in the “Japanese Tea Garden” in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Every time I visited the tea garden in the past, I was puzzled why the pavilion was always crowded with people, each table with a pot of tea and cookies. It was such a strange combination. At that time, I thought they were just pursuing an outdated trend, but later I learned that it was the first restaurant (actually a tea house) in the world to have fortune cookies – right there in that pavilion. It has been 111 years since then, coincidentally the same age as the Republic of China.
This fake Chinese tradition has fooled Americans for 111 years.
As for where the 3 billion fortune cookie messages in the US come from each year, most of them come from the “Wonton Fortune Cookie Company” in New York. This is also a name that caters to American tastes, as wontons have a significant place in American Chinese cuisine. Regardless of what is being sold, as long as it is labeled with “spring rolls” or “wontons,” its ethnic identity is immediately clear. That’s branding, not food.
You may also be curious about who writes all these wise messages. Most of them are written by the company’s internal writers, with some outsourced from the internet.
Non-superstitious Americans Use Fortune Cookies to Play the Lottery
I used to think that Americans were not superstitious, but later I found out that it was because they didn’t have the opportunity to be superstitious. Once given the chance, they can also be superstitious. They may not be afraid of ghosts, but they are very superstitious about “good luck”.
Just stop a few white people on the street, and one of them may have a small fortune cookie in their wallet that can bring good luck. I have seen colleagues stick fortune cookies on their computer screens, and when asked, they said it was “just for fun”. He was single and had been looking for a partner. The fortune cookie he got said, “Romance is waiting for you in the distance.” Later, he joined a startup and made a fortune. He retired in his 40s and traveled the world. Maybe that was a trip full of expectations.
Even though fortune cookies only bring good news and not bad, superstitious people who are in a bad mood may still get into trouble. It is said that a woman whose marriage was in trouble sued a fortune cookie company because of a sarcastic fortune cookie. Her husband, who she suspected of being unfaithful, was going to take a plane trip the next day. The night before, the woman ate Chinese food and got a fortune cookie that said, “Romance will appear in the air soon.”
It was just a casual remark, but it could still lead to a lawsuit. It’s really troublesome to be in this business.
Fortune cookies are like beautiful IOUs…so why not add lottery numbers to them? Of course, someone had already thought of this, so at one time, the “luckiest” lottery numbers that everyone took seriously appeared on fortune cookies. The greatest gift of luck in the world is nothing but a windfall. This psychological expectation is so accurate that 90% of lottery players have used the numbers on fortune cookies to play Powerball, and 80% of people have even decided to buy lottery tickets because of the fortune cookies. The US government may have to thank these cookies.
A Basketful of Winning Records
I have never bought a Powerball lottery ticket, so I am a novice in this area. The game rules are roughly to pick 5 numbers from 69 numbers and another 1 number from a group of 26 numbers. The probability of hitting the jackpot with all 6 numbers is one in three hundred million. Leaving aside the small prizes, there are still many big prizes won by guessing 5 or more numbers through fortune cookies over the years. Here are some examples:
- In 2021, someone won $500,000 with the lucky fortune cookie numbers that came with a takeout shrimp and egg fried rice.
- In 2022, someone won $4 million by guessing the numbers from a fortune cookie.
- In 2015, someone won $10 million by guessing the numbers from a fortune cookie.
- In 2019, a retired grandfather in North Carolina won the jackpot of $344 million by betting on the lucky numbers given by his granddaughter years ago.
There is something that drives me crazy… Out of the 45 states participating in the Powerball lottery, three out of the four biggest jackpots were won in North Carolina, and the other one, although won in Florida, was also bought by someone from North Carolina. Maybe experts in magnetic fields can study this phenomenon.
In March 2005, the Powerball lottery drew an unprecedented second prize: 110 people across the United States guessed 5 numbers: 22, 28, 32, 33, 39, and all of them guessed the same sixth number, 40. This coincidence made the authorities nervous, suspecting fraud or a computer glitch. After investigation, it turned out that all 110 people used the same set of numbers from the same fortune cookie company. The number 40 that they missed was actually very close, and the actual number drawn was 42. Each of the 110 people won between $100,000 and $500,000, depending on how much they bet. If they had guessed 42 as well, all 110 people would have won the jackpot.
Interestingly, the fortune cookie read: “All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off.”
Wikipedia has dedicated a section to the miracle of the 110 people who won the second prize together through fortune cookies.
Can Fortune Cookies Really Bring Good Luck? You Might Be Surprised
Of course, with a large enough sample size, coincidences are bound to happen. Even if only a small percentage of people use fortune cookie numbers to play the lottery, eventually someone is going to win big.
So, everything can be explained by probability… until a scientific website called 538 conducted an analysis that was truly eye-opening.
In summary, the research team bought 1,035 fortune cookies and used each set of numbers to correspond to winning lottery numbers from 1997 to 2017. The conclusion was that fortune cookies had a much higher winning rate than computer-generated random numbers.
1,035 was the sample size for this experiment.
It’s worth noting that three out of the four major jackpots mentioned above occurred after the analysis was conducted.
If someone were bored enough to buy 1,035 lottery tickets for every drawing over the past 20 years using computer-generated random numbers, the total investment would be over $4.2 million. Based on the probability of winning and the actual prize amounts for each drawing, the total winnings would be approximately $1.7 million.
This foolish gamble would result in a net loss of $2.5 million.
If someone were superstitious enough to bet on all 1,035 fortune cookie numbers for every drawing over the past 20 years, buying one ticket for each number regardless of duplicates, the total investment would still be over $4.2 million. However, the total winnings would be nearly $4.4 million.
This superstitious gamble would result in a net gain of $172,000.
One lost $2.5 million, while the other gained over $172,000. The conclusion of the website’s analysis was that it would appear that lucky numbers are indeed lucky.
This mind-boggling probability isn’t just limited to the United States. The New York Times reported that Brazil’s national lottery had an astonishingly high hit rate in 2004.
The New York Post reported that between 2004 and 2021, 146 people won big jackpots using fortune cookie numbers, with a total prize amount exceeding $400 million. 93% of the winnings were at least $100,000.
However, don’t get too excited too soon, and don’t take this as investment advice. Even if the lucky fortune cookie can magically bring some good luck, it’s only compared to the well-known “sure loss.” It’s just a miraculous result compared to a “big loss” – being smarter than a fool doesn’t mean you’re smart.
Think about it, investing over 4.2 million to earn only 172,000 is only a 4.1% return on investment, and don’t forget that it’s over 20 years. Trust me, putting your money in any bank that’s about to go bankrupt is much more miraculous than this investment.
The real miracle may be hidden in North Carolina. If you really want to gamble on miracles, why not move to a place where you can eat Chinese food with soy sauce every day? Maybe you can still get some miracles.