A quick history of Melbourne's love affair with Chinese dumplings

Shanghai Street is known for its xiao long bao (pork soup dumplings).
Shanghai Street is known for its xiao long bao (pork soup dumplings). Photo: Chris Hopkins

When Year of the Rat celebrations begin this weekend, Victorians will do what they've done since the gold rush: eat Chinese food. 

"In the goldfields, Chinese cookshops were mostly for Chinese miners but they served non-Chinese as well," says historian Barbara Nichol.

"There were Chinese restaurants in the Little Bourke Street precinct from the mid-19th century." 

By 1910, there were 20 Chinese restaurants out of a total of 155 eateries in inner Melbourne. By the 1960s, taking a saucepan to a Chinese restaurant to pick up takeaway was as Australian as backyard cricket. 

A bilingual menu from the Eastern Cafe at 166 Russell Street dating to around 1930 includes fish with bamboo shoots, "Mandarin-style" poultry and braised rump steak with bitter melon. The menu doesn't include dumplings, but they were around.

Oriental Tea House's David Zhou: 'We don't need to do taco dumplings!'
Oriental Tea House's David Zhou: 'We don't need to do taco dumplings!' Photo: Joe Armao

The first mention of "dim sim" in the English-language press is from The Argus in 1928, when a columnist noted that "no Chinese meal is complete without some succulent dim sims (pork minced with water chestnuts and enclosed in paste)". 

In the 1940s, dim sims were commercialised by William Chen Wing Young (father of celebrity chef Elizabeth Chong) when he adapted traditional Cantonese siu mai for local palates. Their popularity soared and Melbourne's love affair with dumplings picked up pace.

More mainland Chinese have studied and settled in Melbourne this century and the variety and sheer number of dumplings has skyrocketed.

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"Particularly in the past couple of decades, we've seen more migration from northern China and a whole different style of dumplings," says cooking teacher and author Tony Tan.

"We can't really think about Chinese food now without thinking about dumplings – the phenomenon has really grown."

Sammy Shi owns five Shanghai Street restaurants in Melbourne, known particularly for their xiao long bao soup dumplings.

Taking a saucepan to a Chinese restaurant to pick up takeaway was as Australian as backyard cricket.

"Dumplings are widely accepted by Australians, especially in Melbourne, as a famous part of Chinese food," he says.

"People like dumplings because they're easy to eat, with meat and vegetables all gathered in one bite.

"Secondly, it's an easy way to experience Chinese food. If people want to try Chinese culture, dumplings are a great way to do it." 

Restaurateur David Zhou, owner of the dumpling-focused Oriental Teahouse in the city and South Yarra, believes Melbourne is a great place to be a dumpling fan. 

"People here are quite open and looking for different concepts," he says. "Dumplings are fun, easy and accessible but we can continuously try to push and innovate – that's a good fit with Melbourne." 

With that in mind, his menus offer traditional dumplings alongside dumplings filled with roast duck, satay chicken and pork belly. 'We take authentic oriental dishes and turn them into one-mouthful dumpling versions," he says.

Zhou is going for interesting but not crazy. "We don't need to do taco dumplings! We want to build a bridge between tradition and new thinking." 

His hope is that Melbourne will become the best place for dumplings in the world. 

"I took my staff to a hundred-year-old teahouse in Hong Kong," he says. "I told them to have a look. Do they have what we have? The quirky food? The Melbourne touches like Japanese whisky and craft beer? No. They are still stuck in the chicken feet time."

"Our ambition is that when people ask 'where is the best teahouse in the world?', they don't say Shanghai or Hong Kong, they say Melbourne. We are going for it."