Think of it as a siumai on steroids.
Dim sims—or dimmies as they’re affectionately known in Australia—are hefty purses of dough filled with meat that are then steamed or deep-fried. They’re ubiquitous at takeout joints, gas stations, and fish-and-chip shops in Australia.
Like General Tso’s chicken and other culinary products of the Chinese diaspora, dim sims are often derided as an example of whitewashed Chinese food—bland, dense, oversized lumps that look crude beside delicate morsels of more “authentic” Cantonese dim sum.
Particularly as more varieties of Chinese cuisine have become available in Australian cities, more people are thumbing their noses at anything deemed “inauthentic,” including dimmies.
(Read more: What do we mean when we call a dish ‘authentic?’)
But dim sims are part of a cultural fabric unique to Australia, and they’re no less legitimate for being born outside of China. Their origin story also sheds light on the way in which early Chinese immigrants in Australia struggled and survived.
A cuisine born from immigration policies
Vital to understanding the origins of dim sim is understanding the story of Chinese exclusion.
Chinese food in Australia has a history almost as long as British colonization of the continent, and from early on, these establishments served both Chinese and non-Chinese clientele.
The first published record of a Chinese restaurant in Australia is an 1852 drawing of an establishment in Ballarat, one of the main sites of the gold rush that brought many Chinese to the colony.
Although Americans and Europeans also came to mine for gold, the Chinese attracted particular hostility, and in 1855, the parliament of Victoria, the state that includes Ballarat, passed legislation to restrict Chinese immigration.
When Australia federated in 1901, one of the first major pieces of legislation passed was the Immigration Restriction Act, which limited the flow of non-white immigrants. The law formed the basis of the White Australia policy, which was not fully dismantled until the 1970s.
Amid this anti-immigrant environment, the dim sim was born in the 1940s as a way for Chinese-Australians to navigate the policies of the day.
(Read more: Why the Chinese laundry stereotype persists)
A change in immigration laws in 1934 allowed businesses to hire workers from overseas, according to Barbara Nichol, a historian of Chinese food and culture in Australia. Many Chinese restaurateurs used this provision to bring over family members.
But to be eligible for the exemption, restaurants had to serve Chinese food to a primarily non-Chinese customer base. Restaurateurs deftly adapted to the landscape, Nichol says, by creating a hybrid cuisine that combined local Australian ingredients with Chinese cooking.
The dim sim is an example of that adaptation.
Instead of a thin wrapper holding a mix of pork, shrimp, and water chestnuts—as one might find in Cantonese dim sum—the Australian version of the dumpling became a massive meatball of pork and cabbage wrapped in dough.
“It was competing with the Four & Twenty [meat] pie as a snack.”
“It couldn’t be little and dainty,” Elizabeth Chong, a chef and daughter of William Wing Young, who is credited with first mass-manufacturing dim sims in the 1940s, told Coast Magazine in 2017. “The pastry had to be thicker, and it had to be able to be frozen and transported. It was competing with the Four & Twenty [meat] pie as a snack.”
The dim sim was initially served steamed, says Angie Chong, the daughter of Elizabeth Chong, and the fried variation came after a serendipitous visit to a Greek fish-and-chips shop.
According to Angie Chong, her uncle Tommy Chong dropped by a Greek friend’s fish-and-chip shop during a delivery round.
The owner “thought the dim sims looked good, but he didn’t know anything about steaming,” Chong says, “so they threw them in the deep fryer, and that was the birth of the fried dim sim.”
In 1963, another Greek-Australian, Jack Dardalis, founded Marathon Foods, which now claims to be the largest manufacturer of dim sims and spring rolls in Australia.
Dardalis’ vision, according to the company’s website, was to market “these popular Asian delights throughout the extensive network of fish and chip shops owned by his Greek compatriots.”
Long live the dim sim
Today, Chinese food in Australia includes a heady mix of old-school suburban restaurants, upmarket fusion spots, and major international chains like Din Tai Fung and Quanjude. One can have Chongqing noodles one night and halal Uyghur cuisine the next.
But dim sims continue to survive at oily takeout joints, football stadium stands, and the frozen food section of supermarkets. They’re still immensely popular as an unpretentious, satisfying, and portable snack, despite derision for being inauthentic and somewhat crude.
Dim sims are a testament to Chinese-Australian resilience, ingenuity, and cheek. They helped families outwit restrictive immigration policies and survive in a new country. They’re proof that Chinese culture is made wherever there are Chinese people, that the Australian appetite is elastic—and that a hefty, lumpy pastry can hold a lot of stories under its skin.