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Andrew McClelland: A Somewhat Rambling History of the Dim Sim

Andrew McClelland: A Somewhat Rambling History of the Dim Sim

This has been adapted from Andrew’s regular segment on ABC Radio Melbourne “The Past Less Travelled”. You can hear Andrew on Monday mornings on Breakfast with Sammy J at around 6.30am.

Every culture has developed its own dish of meat in a carby wrapping.

The Cornish and their pasties, the Americans and their hotted dogs, the Italians and their raviolis, the Germans and their bigger hot dogs. But we Australians too have our own delightful cuisine which we should all salute with pride. The Dim Sim!

Now I love Australian-Chinese food. It is its own cuisine, truly ours and an example of one of our few post colonial native cuisines. We shouldn’t be embarrassed that it’s not authentic, we should acknowledge that and embrace it as our own.

These days we’ve so much authentic Chinese cuisine in our cities and many’s the time I’ve been in a restaurant that serves the proper stuff and someone at the table says :

“Steamed rice? Steamed Rice? Yeah, steamed rive for everyone.”

I counter with: “I’ll have fried rice actually.”

People scoff at my uncouthness, but when the fried rice comes out people are gagging for it. Peas, prawns, li’l bits of ham. All that golden goodness!

The first mention of the dimmy is in the Melbourne Argus in 1928.  On 13 October of that year, the paper proclaimed;

“It may be hoped that hostesses will make an effort to vary the monotony of British and French cuisines. Chinese cookery presents an almost unexplored field to those in search of noveltie…. No Chinese meal is complete without some succulent dim sims (pork minced with water chestnuts and enclosed in paste), and such sweets as honeyed lychee nuts and honeyed ginger.”

The writer here is likely here referring to the original sui mai dim sum. But the dimmy as we know it didn’t come in to its own until the 40s.

In the 40s local restauranter William Chen Wing Young (father of Chinese celeb chef Elizabeth Chong) noticed that his sui mai were particularly popular and thought to mass produce them. Dim Sum is of course the word for the dainty li’l chinese bits of deliciousness, but in his dialect it was dim sim, so the dimmy was born!

The dimmy’s filling is made primarily of pork and cabbage, so with it’s carby casing it’s got everything you need for a balanced meal. Pepper is another big ingredient. The pepper content of a South Melbourne dimmy is much higher than the usual and many swear by this long-lived southern variant.

The South Melbourne Dim Sim was first developed and sold by Ken Cheng outside of the Caulfield racecourse in 1949. Of course South Melbourne dims are round instead of vaguely rectangular. Not too difficult to copy. And copy cooks did! It became so poplar that many fish and chipperies started making knock off versions and so an underground black market of pirate dimmys was begun. Tot his day the South Melbourne business is still run by the sons of it’s inventor who also claim that they invented the fried Dim Sim. Upon visiting a friend’s fish and chippery one happy day in the 50s Cheng Jnr had a box of dimmies and determined to cook them up at his friend’s shop but they had no steamer, so in to the deep friar they went, creating one of the most delicious fist sized snacks known to humanity. A fried dimmy now holds it’s head high amongst other fish-chippery classics such as the ‘crab’ stick and the battered sav.

Supposedly the maker of the original dimmy, William Chen Wing Young, also developed inspired the original Chiko Roll. William definitely deserves a statue for this far more than Captain Cook.

I say supposedly however as there is some controversy; On September 14 2016 NSW National MP Andrew Gee used his maiden speech to parliament to claim that the Chiko Roll was invented in Bathurst, NSW. Not so, claimed the Nationals member for the Riverina, who argued that the infamous carb cudgel came from Wagga Wagga, before a Labor member chimed in to claim that her seat in Bendigo was its rightful home. Although William Chen Wing Young may have inspired this cabbage based, chicken-named, chicken-less Chiko Roll it was officially invented by the fella one hot-fried food cart over, Frank Mcenroe. Mcenroe was from Bendigo but manufactured the Chiko in Wagga Wagga for use at AFL matches. It was designed to be gripped with one hand by the hardy sports fan which is why its casing is nearly indestructible and far less palatable than that of the spring roll on which it was based. 

In my book the Chiko Roll can never hold a candle to the Dimmy, but both deserve an honoured place amongst the relatively thin volume of post-colonial Australian dishes. In fact I’ve a heck of a hankering for both now. With perhaps some lemon chicken, fried rice and a fat ol’ Lamington for afters.

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