I looked up and looked down. The sky matched the newly concreted pavement. I rounded the corner and beheld the queue in the distance. It had snaked out to the edge of the wide, extended pavement and around along the bicycle path.
The café patrons looked on as a rag-tag group of locals, suburban visitors and tourists patiently waited on the street. The queue seemed to be a constant source of bemusement as they sippped caffé latés, and wrapped fat fingers around panini, bomboloni and pancakes, clustered on simple outdoor furniture.
I joined the queue. There were 26 people ahead of me. The wind bore a cold hole in my back and as the sky got darker, the rain spat icy droplets on my cheeks. I drew up my hood and buried my hands deeper into my pockets. Shuffling along with the rest of the expectant shoppers, the vendors moved sales along briskly. It took 5minutes to get to the front.
I knew what I wanted. Here there was no time for dilly-dallying or procrastination over the short menu. When you got to the counter you placed your order and were specific. Dim Sims, fried or steamed; Deep Fried Spring Rolls or crispy Potato cakes - all together, in separate bags or mixed bags? Cash only. Transaction complete, move on quickly.
Condiments to the left – slosh dark soy sauce or squirt lurid red Sriracha chilli into the bags and consume quickly on the street before the greaseproof paper of the brown paper bags melds into the dumpling pastry. Fingers covered in grease and sauce, I make a beeline for the public conveniences to clean myself up.
Mr Stickyfingers and I have a Sunday ritual. We start our day with freshly baked organic artisanal bread, with Marsh’s traditional eggs from chickens that roam freely, feeding on grass, insects and whatever fare they come across, with a helping of Gypsy Pig free range, rare breed bacon. It’s the perfect start to the day, healthy and delicious. We then get stuck into our chores and if we need something from South Melbourne Market – usually a visit to the market’s cheese room – then comes the second part of the ritual; the dim sim queue.
The antithesis to our breakfast, this anomaly in our diet is something that started as a way to entice Mr Stickyfingers to the market. But I too have begun to enjoy the stinky delights of God knows how many kinds of offal derived from beef and mutton, cabbage, starch and seasoning with a little meat, wrapped in a thicker than average Goa Tse dumpling pastry. I know, it sounds dreadful, but comes together well. Their Spring Rolls however are not to my taste. The filling is mushy and reeks heavily of cabbage, not unlike another Australian snack food – the Chiko Roll.
Although I have been visiting the market for twenty years it took me some time to come around to these giant dumplings. I suspect that the recipe has been refined somewhat since the death of the business’ patriarch and after, on two occasions, fines of $26,000 & $30,000 for breaches of food safety, arising from unsanitary conditions and not using refrigerated vehicles to transport their products. The recipe was until then, quite an adhoc production.
The Dim Sim is something of a culinary icon in Australia. It is a dumpling made by Chinese Vendors to appeal to western palates as a snack food and is a popular item sold in fish and chip shops and Chinese takeaways. It is not dim sum, which is found at Southern Chinese Yum Cha, though it would appear to be based on their tiny steamed Sui Mai dumplings.
Elizabeth Chong - a Melbourne Chinese cooking teacher - claims that in 1945 her father William Wing Young was the inventor, serving them in his restaurant Wing Lee and selling them at Football matches. The South Melbourne Market dim sim however, is the one upon which most commercial dim sims are based. With a large circumference packed with a stodgy, meaty filling, Aussies love them either steamed or fried.
Kuen Cheng was the father of this commercial ‘Dimmie’. As a cook for the US Marine corps he escaped the Japanese invasion of China and wound up in Darwin, working his way down to Melbourne, where in 1949 his family claims that he sold the dim sims from a trolley that he took to Caulfield Race Course and nearby pubs. It is said that the dumplings were originally very salty, which made patrons thirsty and kept him in the ‘good books’ with the Publicans who allowed this mutually beneficial trade to continue on their premises.
Once business was booming he relocated to South Melbourne market. Today Kuen’s children continue to maintain the business in a newly refurbished and larger stall. People come from all over Melbourne for their fix and there are always queues, even early in the morning. I once met a man who drives from Grafton in Northern NSW armed with an enormous car fridge, to buy large bags of frozen uncooked Dim Sims that will last him several months. He has been buying them since 1960. Such is the love for SMMDS.
South Melbourne Market Dim Sims, Stall 96. South Melbourne Market, Cecil Street (between Coventry and York Streets), South Melbourne, Victoria. Open: Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday: 8.00am - 4.00pm, Friday: 8.00am - 6.00pm. Closed: Monday, Tuesday & Thursday & some Public Holidays.