Has Japan improved on the fortune cookie?

A Japanese company is revolutionizing fortune cookies - again.

Go to any Chinese restaurant in America or Brazil or Ghana or India, and, at the end of the meal, you probably will get your fortune told. Either that or you'll get a cat.

A Japanese company has released a reinvented trend. Produced by Felissimo Inc., the new “Hide-and-Seek Kitty Candies” (“dagashi nyanko kakurenbo”) look exactly like fortune cookies, but instead of receiving a token of wisdom, the crackers contain a figurine of a chubby cat.

Instead of coming free at the end of a Chinese takeout meal, a set of two kitty candies - made from senbei rice crackers - costs around 2,300 yen ($20). The kitty candies are the newest in a series of Felissimo’s popular cat-based products, with a different design released each month.

Whether Japan’s new kitty cookies will rival China’s century-long fortune cookie trend is debatable. The fortune cookie industry produces an estimated 3 billion fortune cookies a day – most of which are consumed in Chinese restaurants in the United States.

But as it turns out, Japan may not actually be rivaling China: fortune cookies actually originate in Japan.

According to journalist Jennifer 8. Lee, author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” it’s a popular myth that fortune cookies come from China.

There is one place where fortune cookies are conspicuously absent: China,” Ms. Lee wrote in The New York Times.

Indeed, the cookie may have actually originated in Japan. Lee tracked the work of Yasuko Nakamachi, a folklore and history graduate who spent six years investigating the origin of the fortune cookie. In the late 1990s, Nakamachi found a family bakery outside Kyoto that made cookies by hand over a flame.

The cookies were folded in similar shapes and contained a little piece of paper folded inside. The bakery had been around for decades – far longer than the fortune cookie’s first appearance in California between 1907 and 1914. References to fortune cookies, Nakamachi found, can be found in Japanese literature and textbooks dating back to the 19th century.

Felissimo’s kitty candies are the first design since traditional fortune cookies to hide a surprise inside, and they’re already wildly popular.

But whether they can break into the US market is a different question. The 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act prohibits all confectionary that "has partially or completely imbedded therein any nonnutritive object, except that this subparagraph shall not apply in the case of any nonnutritive object if, in the judgment of the Secretary as provided by regulations, such object is of practical functional value to the confectionery product and would not render the product injurious or hazardous to health."

Three years ago, over 25,000 Kinder surprise easter eggs were confiscated and banned for containing non-nutritive objects inside. It's not yet clear whether the Japanese kitty cookies comply with the 1938 Act.

"In determining when and whether to take enforcement action against a food, the FDA considers the facts of each particular case," said Lauren Sucher of the FDA. "Any decision by the FDA to take enforcement action is guided by, among other factors, the agency’s assessment of the public health risk presented by the particular food and the resources and tools available to the agency."

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