• Ken Cheng's sons, Phillip and Edward Cheng, have taken over the family dim sims business. (Audrey Bourget)
When Ken Cheng started selling his dims sims out of a trolley 60 years ago, he never knew they would become a Melbourne icon.
By
Audrey Bourget

1 Mar 2019 - 12:19 PM  UPDATED 21 Feb 2019 - 2:46 PM

When thinking of Melbourne, images of laneways, coffee and street art come to mind right away. But there’s nothing more local and iconic than the good old dim sim.

While most dim sims have a rectangular shape, the larger round dim sims are known as South Melbourne dims sims.

It’s believed that the “dimmy” was invented in Melbourne by William Chen Wing Young for his restaurant Wing Lee in the mid-1940s. His daughter, celebrity chef Elizabeth Chong, told ABC that her father noticed Australians were especially fond of the Cantonese siu mai, a steamed pork and prawn dumpling. He adapted the recipe and started to produce them in bulk, simply calling them dim sim.

Steamed or fried? Either is delicious topped with coy sauce and chilli.

Melbourne dim sims are bigger than Chinese dumplings and have a thicker skin. While the original dim sims contained pork, prawns, water chestnuts, spring onions and soy sauce, each takeaway shop has its own recipe.

One of the first people making dim sims in Melbourne, following in Young’s footsteps, was Ken Cheng. He started selling his steamed dim sims out of a trolley at the Caulfield Racecourse in 1949 before relocating to the South Melbourne Market. “It used to be just like a tarp and a stall, and he just did steamed dim sims back then. He had this old Bedford truck and he would put the tarp up and start steaming dim sims,” tells his son, Edward, to SBS Food.

Steamed or fried? Take your pick of dim sims, potato cakes and spring rolls.

According to a South Melbourne Market legend relayed in The Age, Cheng came to Melbourne as a chef for General Douglas MacArthur during World War II. Though his family can’t confirm if the story is true, it adds to the aura of South Melbourne Market Dim Sims.

Melbourne vs South Melbourne dim sims

While most dim sims have a rectangular shape, the larger round dim sims are known as South Melbourne dims sims, thanks to Cheng.

The recipe for Cheng’s dim sims, which are known to be larger than other dim sims, hasn’t changed much since 1949: cabbage, beef, pork, lamb and spices are encased in a thick dumpling wrapper. “If you go to takeaway shops now, they have the small dim sim, around 50 grams. Dad started the big dim sim, 100 grams plus. Ours are around 100 to 120 grams. It was all handmade back then, but now it’s more formalised because it’s made by machines,” explains Philip Cheng.

New-gen dim sim

Ken Cheng’s sons, Edward and Phillip, took over South Melbourne Dims Sims in the 1980s. In the last few years, they’ve opened three other shops (Emporium, Preston Market and Queen Victoria Market) and struck a deal with Woolworths to sell their frozen dim sims. They produce up to 20,000 dims sims a week in their factory.

They’ve also introduced fried dim sims, as well as chicken dim sims to their menu.

While the brothers don’t agree on which is the best dim sim (Edward says it’s the fried one, while Philip prefers his steamed), they agree on the best way to eat it: plain or with a little bit of soy sauce and chilli.

Ken Cheng passed away in 2006, but his recipe still lives on sixty years after he started. He still watches over it, his face emblazoned on the South Melbourne Market Dims Sims shopfronts and takeaway paper bags.


South Melbourne Market Dim Sims

91 Cecil Street and Coventry Street, South Melbourne Market
Wed 8 am – 4 pm
Fri 8 am – 5 pm
Sat – Sun 8 am – 4 pm

Other locations at Queen Victoria Market, Emporium and Preston Market.

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