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Fortune Cookie Maker

by Brett Newman

Chinese Food in Asia (but not China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan)

Winter Volume: 2010 Issue: 17(4) page(s): 27 and 28


While in Kyoto, I took a trip to the 'fortune cookie' producer mentioned in a not too recent New York Times article (January 16, 2008). I tried to find the place the author visited, but the article only mentioned a shop located in Kyoto near a famous Shinto shrine. That was no help in a city with thousands of shrines. My suspicion was that the author was interested in protecting the place from New York Times tourists or saving the location for another professional use. Actually, I finally did manage to locate the proper Japanese characters as well as the shrine she meant, but only after concerted Google searching.

The shop is near Fushimiinaritaisha in the southeast of Kyoto. If you have seen 'Memoirs of a Geisha' and the shrine in it where the main character runs up the mountain under the red gates and goes there, one practically falls into the store after getting off the Keihan train line.

I am a bit surprised at myself for not noticing these cookies displayed there on a previous trip to Kyoto. I must have taken the Japan Rail to the far side of the neighborhood.

Sohonke Hogyokudo, the name of the producer in the article, is a family shop opened about eighty years ago. When I went in, the mother was selling and her son was creating the products. I think I noticed the father there, too, but that was later in the day when returning to the train. I spoke with the mother and with son in Japanese, and for about a half an hour. They allowed me past the display cases to taste a few flattened duds as well as ask far too many questions. They even graciously put their space heater next to my feet as this was a cold and rainy day.

Firstly, they do not just make these senbei, a general word for biscuit or cracker in Japanese, that look like modern fortune cookies. In fact, their shop, and others in the neighborhood, are just as famous if not more so for biscuits they make called inari senbei. These use the same batter but are made in the shape of the fox face, a symbol of fushimi-inari-taisha. Omikuji senbei (written and translated as fortune crackers), suzu senbei (bell crackers), and tsujiura senbei (fortune crackers) are the three names used for these Japanese cookies. The one that makes the most sense to me to is omikuji senbei, for omikuji are 'written fortunes' you can draw at Shinto shrines.

I bought some of their fortune cookies and the unopened package lists, in Japanese, an expiration date of July. That is five months after my 2008 date of purchase. The package also says something about thirty-four cookies inside. However, there were only ten of them. Perhaps if they fill it with unformed senbei then thirty-four will fit in.

The owners said that stores in this area have been making these omikuji senbei since the Meiji period. That means they cannot predate 1868. The fortunes were originally put inside the cookies. However, customers kept eating the fortunes, so the stores in the neighborhood started putting them in between the cookie halves. Awareness has increased since, and Sohonke Hogyokudo now makes both types.

The folks in the store told me that once a visitor brought them an American fortune cookie. They were not crazy about the taste as it was too sweet and also with too strong a vanilla flavor. I agree and think their cookies taste more sophisticated than Chinese restaurant fortune cookies. The fortune cookie makers in this area of Japan are some of, if not the last places to make omikuji senbei. My guess is about half dozen places remain; there are similar shops across the street and around the corner.

All of the senbei are made in two-sided cast iron forms attached to cast iron grips. The forms have a design particular to the maker and many are related to the shine. These forms are heated directly over a gas flame that was probably heated by charcoal a long time ago. They keep them in the fire for about nine minutes, the form is then opened, and the maker pulls the hot cookie out using his or her bare hands.

I asked if this was painful, and was told it was, but only at first. They said one gets used to it. The cookie is then immediately folded into the desired omikuji senbei shape, and any excess near the edges snipped off for a clean line. To hold the 'fortune cookie' shape and allow the worker to keep working, they put the just formed cookies into wooden molds. Those that have cooled and those that lose their proper shape are placed on stainless steel trays in front of the maker.

The iron grips are a standard item found even at a Home Depot store here in Kyoto. But the forms are no longer made, so I could not buy any. When I suggested they would be in a very difficult place if the forms were broken, lost, or stolen, the owners agreed. This shop tends to alternate the forms used each day. One day they make fortune cookies and the next they make inari senbei.

I showed up on a 'fortune cookie' day by coincidence, and learned the batter is a simple mix of flour, sugar, miso, water and a touch of sesame. A big batch is made early in the morning and cookies are made from it all day by this hand process. They told me that in Japan, to their knowledge, nobody produces these cookies by machine. That could be because there is caché to handmade items in Japan; and because all the shops are small.

The shop owners at Sohonke Hogyokudo also told me a story about fortune cookie production mechanization. They said that a Japanese man, about fifty or sixty years ago, came to the neighborhood to see their hand manufacturing process. He returned to his hometown (which was likely near Tokyo) and drew up plans for a machine, and built them. Chinese-Americans visiting Japan came in contact with him and brought one of his Japanese machines back to the United States. This of course could be apocryphal, but it is what I was told.

The owners at Sohonke Hogyokudo displayed a copy of the New York Times article but had yet to read it. They do not speak much, if any, English and they have not had the time to sit and read it using a dictionary. They informed me that an occasional foreigner does visit because of this article, as I had. They would likely educate everyone equally well, were it not for the communication barrier.

If you do not know about nor did not read the New York Times article by Jennifer 8. Lee, you might want to know she has a blog and discusses these fortune cookies and her book at http://www.fortunecookiechronicles. com/2008/01/16/fortune-cookies-are-really-from-japan/ You also might want to know that a website about 'delicious small roads in Kyoto' put up a page about the same shop; it is: http://www. oishikoji. com/shop/index. php?shopid=035

A kind soul has created a website detailing the process at Inari-ya, which is around the corner. It can be seen at: http://www.kyoto-np.co. jp/kp/rensai/wagashi/w-04.html

One final note, a neighborhood association includes the Inari-ya location; that can be seen at: http://www.fusimi-inari. com/store/store_view. asp?mem_num=117

With this article are a few pictures I took of the son making cookies and the sign outside the shop, and the finished and the not well-shaped cookies. Enjoy!
_____
Brett Newman, spent his third collegiate year studying in Japan, had traveled there a number of summers before, and did a paid internship in Tokyo during the summer of 2008. He completed his final Baccalaureate year at Tufts University graduating in Spring 2009 and is now working in the United States. In the future, he hopes to spend many years in what may become his adopted country.
_____
Note: The editor advises, there was a problem publishing this article which was intended for the Fall issue of Volume 15. However, few did receive it, and she takes full responsibility. In addition, she apologizes to Brett Newman who was in Kyoto then when he saw and shared what he learned about Japanese fortune cookies.

                                                                                                                                                       
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