Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017
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Psychic Snacks

Crack open a fortune cookie and experience a taste of tradition and ingenuity

Chinese food, especially the chicken ball, spare rib variety, has been a favourite among North Americans for generations. Whether it's the extraordinary neon-red hue of the plum sauce, the 151 buffet items available at the local Dragon Palace or little brother's clumsy chopstick technique, the experience generates glee.

Cynics may attribute such delight to the unavoidable belly-swell or the generous pinch of MSG. But nobody can argue with the fun of cracking open a fortune cookie at the end of a hearty Chinese spread. Young or old, nobody knows what kind of wisdom or vague psychic prediction will be revealed.

This seemingly simple concept makes for an innovative final course. That's why, while recently planning an Asian dinner menu for my guests, I thought I'd pick up some fortune cookies and add an "authentic" touch to the meal. I headed to Chinatown in search of the sweet novelties and found a bag of 50 cookies for less than $3.

Snap, Crackle, Fun
It's amazing how the simple act of snapping a cookie and finding a secret message inside can make a group of so-called adults giddy. Of course, few people take these mass-produced proverbs to heart, but if some unlucky patron happens to crumble their cookie to dust without finding a fortune, watch as their face droops in glumness. At this point, they'd settle for anything: a personality profile ("you have a keen sense of humour and love a good time"), some poetic insight ("your success is as boundless as the lofty heavens") or even a profound proclamation from the school of Confucius ("hear and forget, see and believe, do and understand"). A real gas! Or is that the bok choy with extra oyster sauce coming back to haunt you?

Whatever the case, proverbs and legends are serious business in Chinese culture. One such legend claims that fortune cookies evolved from ancient moon cakes. These tiny, moon-shaped delicacies became a means of communication during the 14th century. In an effort to stave off invading Mongols, Chinese soldiers, disguised as monks, sent top secret strategies by way of moon cakes stuffed with messages.

Even today, the tasty cakes are consumed by the millions during China's Mid-Autumn Festival. On the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, families gather in celebration and eat the doughy outer crusts filled with anything from melon seeds, sweetmeats, bean and lotus-seed paste to nuts and duck egg yolks. These steamed, baked or fried treats are referred to as Tan Yuan-ping or "perfect circle cakes" and symbolize that the family is united and together for another year.

According to another legend, the fortune cookie was invented during the Tang Dynasty. Enter a lowly pastry chef who, ignoring his station in life, fell in love with the daughter of the Lotus Queen. Chinese society of the day didn't look kindly upon even the slightest ripple in the social order. Fortunately, love always finds a way and so did our crafty pastry chef. Mad with desire, he confessed his love by slipping rice-paper love notes into his baked wontons destined for the palace. He knew full well that the way to a princess's heart is through her stomach.

Japanese Influence
The modern-day version of the fortune cookie, especially its preparation, is a little less romantic. During the early part of the 20th century in the modest kitchen of a mom-and-pop restaurant in San Francisco, Makota Hagiwara had a sweet epiphany. Hagiwara, then manager of Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden, began serving his freshly baked fortune cookies around 1909. Critics and competitors said it was all a blatant gimmick to sell more tea. The less jaded claimed it was a benevolent gesture that encouraged the masses of unemployed workers with a sweet treat and the bonus of a personal note proclaiming a bright future for all who entered the restaurant.

 

Regardless of the proprietor's intention, the sensation caught on. But like many starry-eyed innovators satisfied with a friendly handshake as payment, Hagiwara didn't bother to patent his creation. The oversight allowed several Chinese restaurant owners to copy the recipe and corner the market. Over time, cookie factories sprang up all over San Francisco and the dessert became almost as familiar and famous as the city's orange bridge. Then came international demand and the edible novelties were exported all over the world. To keep up with the increase in shipments, an automated machine replaced the original method of production, which was to form the cookies using chopsticks. Edward Louie, the right inventor at the right place in history, made a small fortune, ahem, and his Lotus Fortune Cookie Company still exists today.

As for the "magic" ingredients? Flour, sugar, vegetable oil, baking soda, water and some flavouring. The mixture is then squirted onto small griddles that cook the dough in about three minutes. Lemon, orange and almond are the most common flavours, but let's face it, retrieving the note inside is what really makes the cookie experience.

Ancient Chinese Secret
To add to their allure, these simple confections are shrouded in some mystery. For instance, how do bakers get the piece of paper inside the cookie? Luckily, the secret is not heavily guarded. The little slips of paper are sucked in by an automated miniature vacuum while the cookies are still warm and soft.

Many Georgia gourmands already knew that. Nestled among the cottonwoods of rural Georgia, the Big Fortune Cookie Company operates three production lines 24 hours a day, five days a week and bakes more than 115,000 cookies a day. Ting-Lin Li, spokesman for the company, says although fortune cookies are naturally associated with Chinese culture, they're still almost exclusively a North American phenomenon. Li, who grew up in Hong Kong and Taiwan, never saw anyone eat them in China. Big Macs yes, fortune cookies no.

So much for serving exotic treats to my deserving guests. But who cares if cookies containing messages that promise certain fortune brought by the golden light of an Asian moon or the pollen of a lotus flower were made in Georgia instead of Taiwan?

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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