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Setting the table: Our stories, our food

Uploaded: Jul 12, 2021
by Sara Hayden

Introducing the new Peninsula Foodist

As a kid, I loved when my family brought home giant bags of "unfortunates." That's what we called the fortune cookies that were broken or otherwise failed to be folded into perfectly formed shells.

Very few, if any, contained actual paper slips foretelling lucky numbers or future wisdom. In fact, most of them were flat circles. They were delightful — pancakes in crunchy cookie form emanating a waft of sugar and vanilla.

Sara Hayden covers the dynamic, under-the-radar food scene around the Peninsula. Courtesy Ash Ngu.

But somewhere down the line, I got self-conscious about enjoying them, and even their more fortunate counterparts. Fortune cookies have a complicated (and interesting) history, likely starting in Japan. The tea house in Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden might have just been the first U.S. restaurant to serve them.

Finding out that fortune cookies weren't of Chinese origin made me question my relationship with them. I also started to get hung up on what was true to my heritage, and what wasn't.

All these years later, I appreciate new restaurant owner Nee Lau's straightforward take on the cookie. In an interview, he told me he's incorporating them at The Mandarin in Menlo Park, right alongside Cantonese and Szechuanese specialities.

"Some people ask, 'Why are you doing fortune cookies?' You know what? People like it," Lau said. "And fortune cookies (are) something I like."

You know what? I like fortune cookies too!

What I love best about food is that it reveals both personal experiences and broader cultural narratives. Every dish and even a single cookie has a story to tell, delivered by the infinite web of people involved in its creation.

As the new Peninsula Foodist, I'm looking forward to sharing these stories, and breaking bread (or fortune cookies) with you to learn more about who we are. See you at the table.

Catch up with Sara Hayden, the Peninsula Foodist, at Or sign up to get her free newsletter about the dynamic, under-the-radar food scene around the Peninsula, published every other week, by going to express. Got tips, comments or recipes? Email Sara at peninsulafoodist@
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