My first brush with divination was at the Chinese restaurant next to the bookstore on the Boulder mall in the 1970s. High on sweet and sour chicken, dizzy with hot pineapple, I couldn’t wait for the moment when that slightly sweet, yoni-shaped biscuit would reveal my fortune. What did the future hold? I didn’t even know how much I wanted to know until this all-knowing cookie, with its little tongue of white paper, promised a verdict full of misspellings and intrigue. You will meet a mystrous friend. Yes!
Unlike gluttony or lust, the desire for prognostication may seem like an innocuous thing, but it can be just as insatiable and crazy-making as any other addiction. The suffering of not knowing what’s next is especially acute when love is in the air or evaporating from the air, or when standing at a crossroads, pulled in two directions, a decision pressing, a gaping void ahead. And it’s at those times that we might seek a sign, or seek a seer who can see signs, to tell us what to do. There is much to choose from: palm readers and astrologers, tarot cards and the I Ching, tea leaves and cookies. The Tibetan Mo system is always just a lama away.
But an accurate reading requires something akin to omniscience. Divination involves a special kind of pattern recognition, seeing causes and conditions and untangling them—an ability to tap into the rise and fall of phenomena, a clear sightline to the interconnectedness of all things.
My fortune cookie experiment required connections. Living at a Bhutanese monastery in an ovenless land, my chances of concocting any kind of cookie on my own were slim. How the devil could I replicate these biscuits of truth? As I sat on my toadstool pondering, along came a man who had the will and the skills to crack the cookie code. As the chef at the exclusive Amankora Resort, a stunning and insanely expensive hotel in Thimphu, he is agile, always ready to cater to his elite guests’ most arcane desires (fresh-squeezed organic blueberry juice in January, you say, Madam?). So when I asked for his assistance, he gamely turned the five-star kitchen into a laboratory.
You don’t need a five-star kitchen to make fortune cookies, but it helps to have nimble fingers and some good toys, like a silicon liner and a perfectly shaped spatula. The ingredients were of a familiar sort. “It’s the same batter we use for tuiles,” the chef explained. Which is fine when you want a flat cookie to stick in your ice cream, but it takes talent to beget the classic shape. The first one I folded looked like it had been squeezed out of a duck. The trick? You have to move like your hair is on fire.
But you can take your sweet time writing the fortunes. I spent a very enjoyable morning culling kernels of wisdom from websites and sucking the marrow out of texts, making things up, finding Joy Division lyrics (“Walk in silence/Don’t walk away, in silence”) and facts about oxytocin, mining the Bodhicharyavatara (“Cast wide your net of infinite compassion”), Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and Wallace Stevens (“I shall whisper/Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals./It will undo him”). Rumi and Neruda were full of pith and poetry. I found an article on the science of lasting love that had lots of pessimistic one-liners (“If true love is defined as eternal passion, it is biologically impossible”), all the while imagining the reaction the words might elicit in a loved or not-so-loved one.
Really, it’s a bit insane to make your own fortune cookies. Yes, they taste better than the ones you get with your Chinese takeout and aren’t loaded with preservatives, but it’s a project only for those who like a challenge and who like to write their own destinies.
Whites of 2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
8 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons caster sugar (if you cannot find caster sugar, make superfine sugar by pulsing regular sugar in a blender or food processor)
3 teaspoons water
This makes a batch of 10 cookies, if you’re lucky and fast.
Preheat oven to 300°. Line a cool baking sheet with a silicone mat or greased wax paper. The size of the sheet doesn’t matter, because you can only make about three cookies at a time.
Beat the egg whites, vanilla extract, and vegetable oil until frothy but not stiff. We used fresh vanilla, scraping out the inside of about half of one bean, because we were fancy.
Sift the flour, cornstarch, salt, and sugar into a separate bowl. stir the water into the dry mixture, then pour into the egg mixture and stir until smooth.
Pour one level tablespoon of batter onto the baking sheet and use the back of a spoon to make an even 4-inch circle. Leave space around each cookie.
Bake until the edges turn golden brown (about 12 minutes); meanwhile you can rehearse the next step.
From the moment you take the tray out of the oven, you have 20 seconds to slide a spatula under each cookie, flip it over in your hand, place a fortune in the middle, and fold it.
Here’s the secret: fold the cookie in half without pressing too hard, then with the arc of the half circle pointing up, gently fold the cookie over the rim of a glass (see photo at right). To keep the shape, tuck the finished cookie in a muffin tin. it’s probably best to enlist friends to help, unless you don’t mind spending the whole night in the kitchen. We only managed to get two folded before the rest of the batch cooled and hardened.
The fortunes can be handwritten on rice paper or, for the lazy and penmanship challenged, typed. The setting in microsoft Word for the avery standard ready index 15 label is the perfect size for fortunes.
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