The Hebrew Confucius? Meet the Man Behind Israel's Fortune Cookies

Any Israeli reaching for a fortune cookie is less likely to get an ancient Chinese proverb than he is to find an aphorism based on the life experience of Peretz Amasai, a 56-year-old atheist father from Kiryat Shmona.

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The fortune cookie factory in Kibbutz Dafna.
The fortune cookie factory in Kibbutz Dafna. Credit: Rami Chelouche
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer

Peretz Amasai, the owner of Israel’s only fortune cookie plant, doesn’t believe in luck, or in karma – and certainly not in God.

“I’m an atheist: Whatever can’t be proven by science doesn’t exist as far as I’m concerned,” he declares at the entrance to his compact factory on Kibbutz Dafna, right on the Lebanese border, northeast of Kiryat Shmona.

Nonetheless, Amasai believes that a cookie has the power to bring about a dramatic change in the life of the person who bites into it. The explanation for this contradiction can be found in messages such as “A miracle is a wonder that you can create by means of your thoughts,” which are hidden in the cookies he manufactures. In other words, awareness shapes experience, or in a simpler version, which also appears in many variations in his cookies, “Think positive, things will be positive.”

Amasai, who started his business about 17 years ago, initially stuck to the 300 basic sayings and aphorisms that came with the machine he bought, but he has since augmented the inventory, each year adding about another 60 messages of his own invention. “I absorb some idea or wise declaration that someone made, and change the wording somewhat so that it will suit the fortune cookie message,” he explains.

But writing the notes is not a philosophical activity divorced from time and context; rather, it’s inspired by actual situations in Amasai’s life. For example, a financial opportunity that was missed because he refused to bribe the right person gave rise to the message, “When money talks – justice is silent.” Whereas a marital crisis that was eventually solved led to the recommendation, “Do whatever you can in order to preserve married life.”

In short, any Israeli who hopes to draw inspiration from a saying hidden in a cookie should take into account that he is less likely to get an ancient Chinese proverb than he is to encounter an insight based on the life experience of 56-year-old Peretz Amasai of Kiryat Shmona, who is married with two children.

'Most of the Chinese restaurants in Israel don’t buy fortune cookies because they’re cheapskates.'

To tell the truth, even the “original” messages, those that Amasai used when he started out, have no real connection to ancient Chinese tradition. That’s because Chinese fortune cookies are actually an American invention and are not served at all in restaurants in China. Due to the cookies’ identification with America, even in Israel Chinese restaurants that want to be considered authentic skip the custom and even treat it with obvious disdain.

“We’re a real Chinese restaurant, we don’t have any such thing,” they told me at Tel Aviv’s Xing Long restaurant, when I phoned them to find out where they buy their cookies.

Says Amasai, “Most of the Chinese restaurants in Israel don’t buy fortune cookies because they’re cheapskates, and I understand them, it really does cost more than a[n after-dinner] candy.”

It is generally assumed that fortune cookies debuted in California, although both the identity of the inventor and the date they first appeared are in dispute. According to one version, the patent should be credited to a Japanese immigrant, a landscape designer who in the early 20th century designed the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco and was fired from his job by a racist mayor. After the next mayor reinstated him, the gardener rewarded him with a cookie that he had baked, in which he hid a strip of paper with words of thanks.

Another version has it that the cookies in their modern form were developed by a Chinese restaurateur in Los Angeles. Whatever the case, in their early years, fortune cookies were baked by hand, with their mass production beginning only after Shuck Yee, a Chinese American, developed a machine that made it possible to manufacture the cookies and fold the messages into them in large quantities. (Other names are mentioned in this connection, too.)

Therefore, when Amasai, a food engineer, decided that he wanted to go into the fortune cookie business, and after purchasing a machine like Yee’s (“I bought it from someone who bought it from someone who went bankrupt, a moment before it was tossed into the junkyard”), he contacted the American himself.

“I phoned him, I asked to meet him in order to hear firsthand about the manufacturing process, and he immediately invited me to visit him in Oakland,” Amasai recalls. “Yee was already very old when we met and said that now his son, who inherited the business, is the one who deals with the cookies. I went to the factory to meet the son, and when I saw that they use a method similar to mine, I was reassured.”

Still, at a very early stage, Amasai adapted the recipe when he replaced the margarine with canola oil and the raw eggs with egg powder. The other ingredients are flour, vanilla, cornflour and sugar, the latter of which definitely can’t be omitted (“I tried, but it’s impossible”). Amasai mixes the ingredients in a metal vat with a capacity of about 100 liters, and transfers the batter into another container. The batter is separated into individual portions of about 10 grams, which are placed into a huge oven at a heat of 160 degrees Centigrade. They emerge still soft from it about two-and-a-half minutes later, in the shape of a flat pancake.

At this point a robot goes into action. It folds each cookie in half, shoves a slip of paper inside by means of a miniature arm, and folds it once again. When the robot “misses,” it starts to beep and the cookie is thrown off the assembly line, unless the operator is very alert and manages to insert the slip of paper by hand. In every such cycle, lasting approximately one hour, about 6,000 cookies are produced.

A one-man show

'You can buy other, tastier kinds of cookies for the same price. The slips of paper are the attraction.'

According to the company website: “The company’s chemists and engineers help develop the batters,” but it’s actually Amasai who handles the entire operation by himself. He prints the messages, uses a cutting machine to produce precise strips, and then bakes, packs and sends out the confections. Only recently did he begin to get help from another worker, a young student who helps on busy days. The price of each unit, if you were wondering, ranges from 50 agorot to 1.30 shekels (13 cents to 34 cents), depending on the quantity ordered and the quality of the packaging desired.

“You can buy other, tastier kinds of cookies for the same price,” he admits. “The slips of paper are the attraction.”

He divides the messages into two categories: fortunes and aphorisms. Examples of the first kind: “The coming spring will bring many positive things with it,” and “Soon you will receive a large sum of money.” According to Amasai, “The ‘soon’ gives you a time period and the second part of the sentence is the positive part that gives you the illusion.”

So you sell illusions?

Fortune cookies in the making at the factory in Kibbutz Dafna. Credit: Rami Chelouche
Fortune cookies in the making in the Kibbutz Dafna factory. Credit: Rami Chelouche

“How is that different from religion? Faith is deception, a vague hope that doesn’t exist, but in effect you have given a person something to hold onto. It’s like a check that may not be covered, but that’s valid for an entire lifetime, because it never bounces. Those who fill out lotto forms also get a good feeling at the thought that they’ll make money, despite the fact that the chances are almost nonexistent. Is a piece of paper with numbers on it a greater illusion than a piece of paper inside a cookie? Think that you got a slip of paper and started to smile, whether because from now on you believe that good things will happen to you or because you consider the message foolish. As far as I’m concerned, that’s it, I’ve done my job.”

The other kind of messages, containing aphorisms, are more philosophical (“Love what you do, do what you love”); rely on metaphors (“The broken wheel on the wagon makes the most noise”), and sometimes wax lyrical (“Patience is bitter but its fruits are sweet,” or “The rifts in your landscape are the green trees of your life”).

Amasai is somewhat insulted when he is told that many of the sayings are banal. In his opinion, “The wise saying provide tools, that if you implement them, can change your life in the most concrete way. These aren’t cliches but truths. What’s wrong with saying that there’s something both positive and negative in everything? In saying that it’s preferable to look at the glass half-full? Or in saying that your quality of life depends on your thoughts?”

Over the years, Amasai has eliminated messages that aroused negative feedback, mainly those that turned out to be outdated. “I don’t recall the precise wording, but there was a sentence like ‘A man has to know how to keep an eye on his sword and his wife,’ which had a chauvinistic connotation, so I removed it.” However, when it comes to cookies that are made to order, which are his main source of livelihood, Amasai doesn’t dwell on being politically correct. Recently, for example, he received an invitation from a sex shop, which asked him to insert questions such as “How often do you use your vibrator?” “Does your partner know where your G spot is?” And, “Do you swallow or do you spit out?”

Is there a message that you won’t print in a cookie?

“There’s no such thing. I’m not the ruler of the world, and I don’t discriminate against anyone. I’ve also made cookies for all the political parties, on the left and the right. It has to be a really extreme inscription for me to refuse: ‘Death to the Arabs,’ for example.”

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