Most local Chinese restaurants — including Max’s Noodles & More (see review) — pass out fortune cookies as a kind of party favor to accompany the bill. “It’s a totally American custom,” says Richard Ng, the co-owner (with his wife, Theresa) of the four Bo Ling’s restaurants. “You never see fortune cookies in China or Hong Kong.”
Anyone who has visited San Francisco’s touristy Chinatown has probably seen a fortune cookie “factory,” where grizzled old women sit at little tables (typically with a sign that reads “Take my photograph, $1”) and fold the warm circles of sugary dough into a confectionery envelope holding a strip of paper printed with an always-upbeat “fortune.”
In a possibly apocryphal story, fortune cookies date back to before the Ming Dynasty, when a patriotic revolutionary, Chu Yuan Chang, passed out Moon Festival cakes with secret messages hidden inside about a planned uprising. Chinese immigrants working on California’s railroads are said to have turned the pastry tradition into a happier custom.
For the past ten years, Ng has been making his own fortune cookies with a machine that bakes the batter, folds the pastry and blows a paper fortune into the interior. “It has two automated arms. One picks up the cookie, which is still warm, and begins to fold it at the same time that a second arm sucks up a strip of paper and blows it into the cookie,” he explains.
When Ng bought the machine over a decade ago, he toyed with the idea of going into the wholesale fortune-cookie business but changed his mind. “That business would take more time and energy than running my restaurants,” he says. Now he simply makes enough cookies — two days a week — to stock the Bo Ling’s kitchens. But that’s plenty of dough: seven cases a week for each of his four restaurants, which equals about 14,000 cookies a week.
“I buy generic fortunes from a manufacturer in Boston who ships them out in preprinted sheets that have been arranged so that the same fortune doesn’t get repeated too often,” he says. Ng will create cookies with custom-made fortunes for local companies that want to give them away as a promotion, and he’s made them for private parties (they’re very big on the bar mitzvah circuit right now) and even political campaigns.
His most unusual request? “A customer wanted a diamond engagement ring put inside the fortune cookie as a way to propose to his girlfriend. We did it.”