It’s a very Australian thing to speculate on the exact contents of a dim sim. You get the same kind of thing whenever people sit down and seriously think about chicken McNuggets – the mind tends to wander to ghoulish, unwholesome places. Pigeons and stray cats are often mentioned. But the truth is actually pretty normal.
“Pork and cabbage are the traditional mix,” says chef and culinary teacher Angie Chow. “And pepper is important. Although during the war years there wasn’t much pork around, so they were generally made of mutton.”
We can pretty much take Angie’s words as dimmie gospel here, because her grandfather was William Chen Wing Young, the man that’s gone down in history as the inventor of the Australian dim sim way back in the 1940s. “He didn’t really ‘invent’ them as such,” Angie says. “He took a traditional Chinese shumai dumpling and commercialised it.”
The family legend goes like this. In the early 1940s, William Young started a business, Wing Lee, opened a factory in Melbourne and started pumping out giant pork dumplings. These weren’t the traditional, delicate yum cha variety, designed to ‘dot the heart’ without touching the stomach. These were steamed meat bombs wrapped in a glutinous exoskeleton, “large enough to satisfy western appetites and strong enough to withstand freezing, reheating and transportation.”
It was a big family business back then, supplying most of Melbourne’s Chinese restaurants. But it wasn’t until William’s brother, Tom, dropped some dim sims at a fish and chip shop in Mordialloc that things really took off. The chippery’s owner, Joe, threw the dumplings into the deep fryer, just to see what would happen—and out came fried dimmies. They were an instant commercial phenomenon, inspiring others, like Ken Cheng, the founder of South Melbourne Market Dim Sims, to launch his own business in 1949. South Melbourne Market Dim Sims now churn out more than 20,000 dim sims every week. Their fist-shaped design became so popular that off-brand copycats began emerging in suburban chipperies, trading on the South Melbourne name.
“It changed the way people ate, too,” Angie says. “Australian people were walking around the streets eating fried dumplings out of paper bags, which the Chinese never did. The tradition was to sit down and share them at the table.” Incredibly, Angie’s grandfather also went on to lay the foundations for the Chiko Roll (officially patented by businessman Frank McEnroe in 1951, despite containing no chicken whatsoever). They should build a statue to this guy…
Angie’s mother, the famous Australian chef Elizabeth Chong, has gone on record with William Young’s “original recipe”, and you’ll be relieved to know there’s not a pigeon in sight. In fact, it calls for pork, prawns (!?) water chestnuts and spring onions, which makes me think we’ve sort of devolved when it comes to dim sims. When was the last time you bit into a service station dimmie and tasted water chestnuts?
Elizabeth has also put to bed another rumour: that the name ‘dim sim’ is some sort of western corruption of ‘dim sum’—traditional Cantonese yum cha. She told ABC in 2016, “They called it ‘dim sim’ because in my dialect we say dim sim, not dim sum.” So there you go. Put that in your pipe and steam it.
Dim sims have fried their way into the Australian psyche. You can fry them, steam them, even BBQ them. They have inspired Change.org petitions (which appear to have failed), and there are even dedicated dim sim appreciation groups. But despite changing Melbourne’s fast food scene—and average cholesterol—forever, dim sims never had much of an impact interstate. You can buy dim sims in New South Wales and South Australia, but they’re harder to find, and the quality is suspect at best. I personally had the worst dim sim experience of my life from a small convenience stand on Sydney’s northern beaches. They put grated carrot in it, for god’s sake. I took one bite and offered the rest to some passing seagulls. They refused. I haven’t been back to Sydney since.
Keen to learn more about dim sims? Read about Australia's largest dim sim dedicated Facebook group here.
Image credit: Jenna Fahey-White