The “Dimmy” Dim Sim: A Chinese Or Australian Culinary Item?

Last week in Asian Food in Australia: Not Authentic But Still Delicious, I briefly discussed whether it is actually right to classify one of Australia’s most popular snack the dim sim as Chinese cuisine.

After mulling about this over the past week, I reckon: perhaps.

The dim sim can be more accurately described as a Chinese-Australian culinary item.

The famous Australian dim sim shop in South Melbourne. There are always long queues here for this Chinese-inspired Australian snack. Photo: Mabel Kwong

The famous Australian dim sim shop in South Melbourne. There are always long queues here for this Chinese-inspired Australian snack. Photo: Mabel Kwong

In a globalised world where mobility is rife, people, ideas and traditions are bound to transcend different corners of the globe. Even culinary methods and styles move across continents as chefs travel and share their cooking skills in foreign places. As such, a variety of gastronomic methods tends to influence the creation of contemporary cuisines in today’s food-mad world.

Created by Chinese chef William Wing Young in Melbourne around 1945, the dim sim is a dumpling comprising of meat usually wrapped in (thick and fried) skin in Australia.

Boasting distinctly Asian (Chinese) and Western (Australian) characteristics and flavours, the dim sim is arguably the epitome of “fusion food”.

Fusion food/cooking is food/cooking that is a fusion of two different culinary styles, combining at least two different cooking methods and ingredients to create a new dish and/or cuisine. “Food hybridisation” is a phrase that can be used to describe this process.

Some fusion dishes appear to exemplify the traits of a certain (traditional) cuisine more strongly than others. This can be confusing and can even put some of us off from calling these culinary items “fusion foods” and referring to them instead as simply Chinese, Japanese, English etc. food.

One may think that just because it is a dumpling, the dim sim is simply a Chinese culinary item (dumplings are made passionately and eaten ubiquitously by Asian communities everywhere). The dim sim also passes off as Western finger-food in that it is huge in size just like large servings of Western snacks, and fried Western style just like a considerable proportion of deep-fried Western food – hence why it can arguably be classified as fusion food.

(I tried the famous South Melbourne dim sim this week. I must say, the meat or filling of the dim sim I ate resembled and tasted almost exactly like the salty processed meat so often found in Australian sausage rolls. Another reason for it to be deemed Western food).

The dim sim was created by a Chinese person. Today, the famous South Melbourne dim sims in Melbourne are made by a Chinese family in a Chinese-styled red shop.

It is no surprise then that the strong presence of Chineseness surrounding the dim sim overshadows the fact that it was made in Australia and is essentially a popular Australian snack.

Given its strong Chineseness, we can think of the dim sim as the result of the process of “adding Western to Asian”. Or to put it more simply, the result of adding Western gastronomic stylistic elements to Asian food.

Adding Asian to Western” or fusion food that boasts a strong “Western base” or origin is seemingly more common. In Australia, there are tons of recipes for this kind of fusion food, including those such as Asian-inspired pumpkin soup, Asian-inspired chicken salad and Peking Duck Pizza.

Quite often, many insist such cuisine is Western cuisine. Or Western dishes with a tinge of Asian flavours when it fact the moniker fusion food applies. Maybe this is because these dishes do after all have immensely strong Western origins or associations and some just cannot look past this, and so are reluctant to describe such cuisine as Chinese-Australian, English-Thai etc..

The famous South Melbourne dim sim, fried. It looks like a fried Western snack and it does indeed taste like one as I found out by trying it this week. Photo: Mabel Kwong

The famous South Melbourne dim sim, fried. It looks like a fried Western snack and it does indeed taste like one as I found out by trying it this week. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Truth be told, “fusion food” is a recent phenomenon and is only starting to gain attention with the rise of hybridised cooking. There always seems to be an air of apprehension surrounding the mixing and combining of different cooking methods or ingredients to create fusion dishes – these new creations may not please taste palates so used to consuming particular favourite traditional cuisines, and as such might not be readily acknowledged or accepted.

In an ever increasing multicultural Australia where more and more locals are warming towards ethnic foods on offer in their backyards, it would not be surprising to see more fusion dishes popping up on local menus in the near future.

As such, there is the strong likelihood that there will be more Chinese-Australian culinary items à la the dim sim sometime down the track in Australia, maybe even so much so that a unique name might be tossed up to describe this sort of cuisine. In Singapore, the blending of Chinese ingredients and Malay and Indonesian cooking techniques to create unique fusion dishes has become so common that locals officially refer to them as nonya cuisine.

When this happens in Australia, perhaps then we will truly embrace and acknowledge the emphatic presence of fusion food around us.

And more importantly, perhaps then we will somehow learn to appreciate the different cultures and people around us, cultures and people that ultimately play a vital part in shaping and influencing our everyday, favourite meals.

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14 thoughts on “The “Dimmy” Dim Sim: A Chinese Or Australian Culinary Item?

  1. I know Italians have been annoyed by other cultures corrupting traditional Italian recipes but still calling them Italian. (Tandoori pizza, pizza with pineapple etc). In 2004, the Italian Government actually passed laws that Pizza must be made with a thin crust, fresh plum or cherry tomatoes and mozzarella. Basil, oregano, garlic and olive oil are acceptable toppings, but everything else is “an affront to Italian cuisine.”

    I like the lead shown by Tetsuya Wukada. He has combined elements of French cuisine with Japanese cuisine but he doesn’t define his restaurant as either French or Japanese, he just calls it Tetsuyas. If an individual makes up their own recipes then I don’t think they should be using a label system that infers that the recipes are definitive of a culture. Embrace the difference and creativity, don’t run from it or hide behind the label.

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    • I don’t think wecan really fault the Italian Government for passing such a law against pizzas. A plus that arises out of this is that traditional, authentic Italian recipes are more likely to be meticulously adhered to and so preserved. Often each old recipe/cuisine says something significant or intriguing about a certain culture.

      But that’s no to say that fusion food or hybrid cuisine shouldn’t be embraced. As you said, we should “embrace the difference and creativity”. And I believe we should do just that – no one person or culture is the same and it’s difference that makes the world go round.

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      • I personally don’t fault them at all. In many ways, they have a brand to maintain. A fusion recipe may be suited to other people’s tastes but it corrupts perceptions of what Italian food is and which is important to them.

        The problem is a bit clearer with wine where Australian winermakers used to make wine in Australia and give it labels like hermitage and champagne. This really annoyed the winemakers of the respective French regions because to use the label in France, not only did they have to be from the region, but there was all these rules that they had to follow, such as grapes that could be used, how long wine could be left in vats, when grapes could be picked etc etc.

        Ironically, when the European Union forced other countries to stop using European names in the 1990s, it gave these countries an incentive to forge their own reputations. Sales shows the benefit of this. From 1990 to 2001 Australia’s annual exports increased from 38 million litres worth $121 million to around 354 million litres worth $1.7 billion. This was a 10 fold increase in volume and a 14 fold increase in value. Instead of being labelled hermitage etc, we had wines being labelled shiraz etc

        For me, it showed that while there are some benefits in trading off someone else’s reputation, sometimes it is better to create your own.

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        • Thanks RedEarthBlueSky. That is a great example indeed of showing how sometimes it is better to be bold, be unique and use our own creativity to create something new. It does pay off quite a lot of times.

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    • Thank you for the nomination! Much appreciated! I’ve had a look at your dim sum/yum cha post. I found it very interesting in that sometimes we call it “dim sum”, and sometimes “yum cha”. Nevertheless, this Chinese/Asian meal is always a very scrumptious one! A treat for oneself I suppose since it’s not cheap nowadays.

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  3. I don’t really consider dumplings to be Chinese. Jiaozi are Chinese, Gyoza are Japanese, Ravioli is Italian, Pelmeni are Russian, and yet they’re all pretty much the same thing just eaten a little differently.

    That said Aussie Dim Sims have a Chinese heritage behind them, and are a fusion food. Just like Chow Mein (I DID spell this right, Google it if you’re not sure 🙂

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    • This is the first I’ve heard anyone say they don’t consider dumplings to be Chinese 🙂 I must add, siew mais are very, very popular dumplings that orginated in China. And yes…all those “dumplings” you mentioned seem to be pastry-wrapped-around-meat foods. They all taste very differently, though. I’m sure if we were blindfolded, fed each of them one by one and asked to guess what we were eating, we would be able to tell what we were eating.

      Oh yes, you spelt Chow Mein just right! I absolutely love crispy chow mein…a western construct of Chinese fried noodles.

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  5. Wrong facts about nonya food. Very common misconception. Nonya food is not fusion food is actually a food type/style practised by baba nonya heritage, just like other heritages such as conto/chinese/thai/indian/malay cusine. It is also not from Singapore. Culturally, it is from Malaysia. And in its raw state, it is a blend resulting from Chinese and Malay heritage, profoundly practised in Melaka and Penang.

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    • Thanks, Andy. There’s traditional food, and fusion food these days. Nonya food has certainly grown popular in Malaysia and Singapore over the last decades, and I think we can all agree that it is a kind of cuisine that has its own strong, unique taste.

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