Most people, upon hearing mention of fortune cookies, think of the waffle cookie confection that is usually served with the bill at Chinese restaurants (especially in North America). But we have fortune cookies in Japan, too, and one variety is available only at New Year’s. Fortunes at new year’s are a popular part of getting the year off to a good start.
Known as tsujiura, a Japanese word for the slip of paper on which the fortune is written (or sometimes tsujiura senbei, adding the Japanese word for cracker), the new year’s variety is best known in Kanazawa, where it is said to have originated. Fortunately, one doesn’t have to travel all the way to Kanazawa to get them. I found mine at Moroe-ya, a Kanazawa confectioner with a shop in the Kitte building just outside Tokyo station. The store attendants stressed to me that they are only made and sold this time of year–and should be eaten during the month of January. (A friend told me they are also available in the Tokyu Plaza beneath Shibuya Station.)
Star-shaped rice crackers with a sugar coating, these are tiny treats that come in a variety of colors. Like the fortune cookies Westerners associate with Chinese restaurants, each contains a small slip of paper with a little drawing and a short fortune, making them popular to share among family or friends at the new year.
It was thanks to Jennifer Lee’s 2008 book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles”, that I first learned that the fortune cookie has its roots in a Japanese treat. In her research into the impact of Chinese restaurants on American culture, Lee learned that the fortune cookie I grew up with in the US was adapted for Chinese restaurants in California sometime after the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans. Before leaving for the internment camps, many Japanese-Americans sold their businesses and possessions to Chinese-Americans. Apparently the molds to make tsujiura senbei was among the items acquired, and over time the sweet cookie produced by Chinese-Americans using the molds became popular as “dessert” in Chinese restaurants.
Lee then traced the cookies from Japanese-Americans back to Japan, where she encountered the research of Nakamichi Yasuko, who has learned that tsujiura senbei may have originated in the Kansai region–near Kyoto or Osaka–and have been around since at least 1790. In that year, a novel made reference to tsujiura senbei. As well as other literary references, there is an 1878 print of a shop where the cookies/crackers are being produced on an open grill, while a sign across the top says “tsujiura senbei“.
Although I haven’t tried the Kansai variety, Lee reports that they are more savory than the Americanized version, since they are flavored with miso paste, that most ubiquitous of Japanese seasonings. Fortunately, since the Kansai version is not regarded as a new year’s treat and instead is available year-round, I’m sure to get the chance the next time I heard to that part of Japan!
In the meantime, I have a small bag of new year’s tsujiura senbei from Moroe-ya to share with family and friends during this holiday season.
(Special thanks to my friend Kana for giving me this blog post idea.)