James Lambert of the Australian National Dictionary Centre has unearthed a reference to this popular fast food in the Melbourne Argus in 1928. On 13 October of that year, the paper proclaimed that “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.” Lambert noted that many other sources have attributed the development of dim sims to William Wing Young in 1945.
In her book Banquet: Ten Courses to Harmony Annette Shun Wah relates that ‘dim sum’ literally means ‘to touch the heart’. The dim sims referred to in The Argus were most likely these delicate morsels, completely unlike the hefty article we’re familiar with today.
Shun Wah says that many Chinese restaurants made their own dim sims and chicken rolls, often supplying them to hawkers or fish and chip shops. She also attributes their commercialisation to Chen Wing (William) Young, the father of the television cook and author Elizabeth Chong.
He set up a factory in 1941 and initially employed pastry cooks from China to make the casings and women to wrap the dumplings and chicken chop suey rolls. The new versions were ‘large enough to satisfy western appetites and strong enough to withstand freezing, reheating and transportation’.
The re-engineered versions were originally supplied to Chinese restaurants but, the story goes, William’s brother supplied some to a fish and chip shop at the bayside suburb of Mordialloc, who dropped some into the fryer. The fried dim sim soon became a popular fast food and Young was doing well enough to have an engineer design a machine to make the products. The Aussie Dim Sim had arrived.
Although dim sims can be found elsewhere, it seems they are mainly a Victorian phenomenon. Especially famous in Melbourne are the South Melbourne Market dim sims, distinguished by their size and globular shape. Ken Cheng first sold them from a trolley at Caulfield Racecourse and later from a truck at the market. Cheng’s sons have continued the business and South Melbourne Market dim sims are now available from several other Melbourne outlets.
So enamoured are Victorians with dim sims that there’s even a Facebook page (and an Instagram page) called Dim Sims 4 Lyfe. It’s full of heart-rending pleas from people in far-flung places like New Zealand or Western Australia, lamenting the absence of their favourite snack and asking whether anyone knows where they might be obtained. In New Zealand, it appears the only answer is Costco – but there isn’t one on the South Island.