What do we consider Australian? What’s fair dinkum Aussie? For the uninitiated, “fair dinkum” is Australian lingo for “genuine”. It is a term probably lost of the current urban and multicultural generation, but one still stereotypically associated with farmers, the older generation, and folks born and bred in the country – generally those characters we consider the “salt of the Earth“.
The term “fair dinkum” certainly doesn’t sound like it has roots in the English or Latin language, but due to the influence of the traditional Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, we Australians are quite familiar with and tolerant of non-English or Latin sounding words peppering our everyday speech. Aboriginal words are borrowed for our rivers and parks, streets and suburbs. Cabramatta for example, the name of a well-known suburb in Western Sydney with a prominent Vietnamese population, derives its name from the words “Cobra” (Cobra grub) and “matta”(place of water) in the language of the Darug people who lived in the Sydney basin, and together these refer to the place where one could find Cobra grubs. But “fair dinkum” isn’t of Aboriginal origin. One little known theory claims that it is actually Chinese! Cantonese to be exact, apparently for “real gold” a cry heard on the Victorian goldfields during the Gold Rush in the mid 1850s.
My Cantonese for “real gold” is “jun kum” or 真金 and doesn’t sound anything like “din kum“, so it got me researching what it could be referring to. Have I mentioned I can obsess on topics? It’s a little embarrassing how many hours I have spent researching this now (and in the interests of illustrating the phonetic points made in this post, I have avoided using the official Cantonese pinyin system since “um” isn’t even a recognised pinyin sound in the official system, it’s written as “am”).
I have found two possible explanations that give rise to this Cantonese “dinkum” origin. The first being the Chinese term, 一定 (yut ding) and the two characters together mean “must”. Colloquially this can be construed in Cantonese as 係定啦! (hai ding la) or “it must be”, so it is possible that the words said together 係定金! (hai ding kum) loosely meaning “it must be gold!” could have been uttered on those goldfields when Chinese miners struck gold.
The other theory originates from the Ancient Chinese Imperial measurement system. The Chinese measurement system for mass served so well, particularly for the measurement of gold and silver, that even today, the Chinese haven’t fully adopted the SI unit mass measurement system. The use of the Chinese pound or catty, 斤 (gun/ Mandarin pinyin: jin) which roughly translates to 500gm, is a case in point as it is still very commonplace in Chinese marketplaces all around the world. One hundred catties, a picul, was termed 担 (dan), which is equivalent to about 50kg in SI units. Is it possible that the Chinese gold miners were yelling 担金! (dan kum)! Trust me, I’d be yelling too if I’d found 50kg of gold! If this theory has any legs, it is more likely used in the context of trading large quantities of gold.
There are counter theories of the Chinese origin. Scholars believe that the phrase “fair dinkum” is an English dialect word originating in the East Midlands and brought to Australia by the white settlers. The main evidence is that the term first appeared in Australian writing in 1888, in Rolf Boldrewood’s “Robbery Under Arms” and he used the term to refer to a “hard’s day’s work“, which apparently means it can’t chronologically be contributed to the Chinese miners. How that chronologically proves that the Chinese didn’t contribute to this uniquely Australian word as they were in the Australian goldfields 30 years prior to this first publication confuses me as the argument doesn’t quite make logical sense. I would have thought that only adds to the support for the phrase coming from the Chinese miners and had the order been reversed, that is, with the publication appearing before the Chinese appeared on those Victorian goldfields, then perhaps that argument would make sense. But then, I’m not an etymology scholar.
Objectively, neither argument for Chinese nor English-dialect origin is definitive for me, but not surprisingly I guess, I like the romanticised Chinese origin version.
So my tribute to that Chinese “story” if you will is a recipe that combines typical Chinese and Australian elements. There are very few notions more iconically Australian than prawns on a barbie. Thus, I’ve experimented with this barbequed prawn dumpling recipe – it’s a basic pork and prawn dumpling with an added barbequed prawn bisque soup – my take on the xiao long bao, the delicious Shanghainese soup dumpling. As this post revolves around gold, I’ve drawn inspiration from the iconic Chinese gold ingot, known as sycee or yuanbao in Chinese, the silver and gold currency used in China until the 20th Century for the dumpling shape and have added edible gold leaf as a final special touch.
Barbequed prawn dumplings
Ingredients (makes 40 dumplings):
Prawn bisque jelly
(Adapted from Lorenzo Pagnan’s prawn bisque recipe)
- Shells and heads from 300g Australian prawns (I used medium tiger prawns)
- 2 large carrots, cubed
- 2 celery stalks, cubed
- 2 onions, cubed
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup white wine
- 3 cups vegetable or fish stock
- 2 cups water
- 1 tbsp powdered gelatin per 500ml of bisque (or just a little less than the manufacturer’s instructions)
- black pepper
- Meat from 300g Australian prawns
- 300g pork mince
- 1 cup of prawn bisque jelly, diced into 2cm cubes, (at least 1 cube is required per dumpling)
- 1 pack Shanghai wonton wrappers, (about 40 wrappers)
- 2 spring onion stalks, green shoot part only, chopped finely
- small section of edible gold leaf
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 1/2 tsp sesame oil
- white pepper
- Remove the heads and shells from the prawns and set aside. Devein prawns and reserve meat for later.
- Place the prawn heads and shells into a bag and mash with a mallet. Barbeque the prawn heads and shells until pink and dry (about 20 minutes).
- Heat oil over medium heat in a saucepan and sweat the onions, celery and carrots until soft and translucent. Add the prawn head and shells, wine, bring to the boil.
- Add the stock, water, bay leaves, pepper and tomato paste. Stir to combine then simmer for 30 minutes, skimming off scum periodically.
- Remove pan from heat and allow to cool before blending roughly using a stick blender. Pass the bisque through a vegetable mouli, or if you don’t have one, through a sieve, using the back of a ladle to apply pressure and extract the bisque liquid from the ingredients.
- Measure the amount of bisque extracted and transfer 2 cups back to a pan to heat on the stove on medium heat (save the rest for a delicious soup!) and just before the bisque comes to the boil, add in the gelatin (use a little less than the amount indicated on your gelatin), or about 1 tablespoon per 2 cups of liquid. We want to create a fragile, weak jelly that melts easily when the dumpling is steamed so where the gelatin I used recommended 1 tablespoon for 400ml of liquid, I instead used 1 tablespoon for 500ml bisque.
- Allow to cool before transferring to the fridge to set (takes a few hours or leave overnight).
- Meanwhile, mince the prawn meat. I like to take a quarter of the prawn meat and mince this amount roughly leaving larger chunks, and mince the rest finely.
- Transfer to a bowl and add the pork mince, green spring onion shoots and season with soy sauce, sesame oil and a little pepper. Mix to combine well.
- When the brawn bisque jelly has set, cut and dice into small cubes about 2cm in size. Ensure you have enough cubes as you need one cube per dumpling. For this recipe, you’ll need 40 cubes.
- Take wonton wrapper, wet all edges with water, then spoon a teaspoon of the dumpling filling mixture into the center. Create a small depression in the dumpling mixture for the cube of prawn bisque jelly and fold over edges to create the dumpling. (See the photo below for detailed instructions on how to fold the gold ingot dumpling shape).
- Line a steamer basket with perforated baking paper, by cutting a circle of baking paper large enough to cover the base of the basket, folding this over repeatedly and cutting out small triangles along the length of the folded paper. This non stick surface helps ensure the dumplings don’t stick, tear and lose their precious soup on the bamboo basket whilst still enabling effective steaming.
- Place water into a wok and bring to the boil, then fill the steamer basket with dumplings, cover and steam for 6 minutes.
- Remove dumplings from heat and carefully top dumplings with edible gold leaf (gold leaf is notoriously difficult to handle and sensitive to moisture and humid conditions so use cloth gloves and tweezers, not bare fingers unless you want to have your hands covered in gold leaf).
- Serve and eat immediately.
Start with the barbequed prawn shells – the basis of a good prawn bisque and barbeque them until pink, crispy and aromatic.
Simmer the crispy barbequed prawn heads and shells with the aromatic vegetables to create a rich flavourful broth. This will require much tasting in between to ensure the flavour is spot on! When done, blend to extract maximum flavour then strain to get a clean bisque. Add just enough gelatin to set the jelly – a fragile jelly that dissolves into soup with heat is desired, not one that can be used as a ping pong ball. When set, cut into small cubes ready for dumplings.
Mix together the dumpling fillings and season. Depending on how salty the final bisque is, you may not require much or any salt.
When the dumpling filling mix is made, it’s time to prepare the dumpling station! The gold ingot shaped dumpling requires square dumpling wrappers. I’ve used Shanghai wonton skin wrappers as they are a little stronger than egg wonton wrappers and can hold the soup more effectively.
After experimenting with a few designs, the most stable design that held its shape and didn’t wilt, burst or come apart was the design below.
Repeating the same process with the remaining pastry wrappers. Any unused dumpling mix can be frozen for use another time.
Set up the steam basket for a work out – steam a small set at a time and make sure the dumplings aren’t touching one another, or they will break and tear on removal from the basket and spill out their guts in a blaze of orange glory.
Have the edible leaf prepped and ready to go – obviously as gold is a metal and an excellent conductor, heat and humidity makes it harder to handle. Work with cotton gloves and tweezers – and don’t heat up the tweezers unnecessarily. Some people prefer to work with gold leaf in a cold room, but failing the impracticality of trying to cram myself into my tiny fridge, not to mention risking cooling down the dumplings, keeping the tweezers at room temperature cool is the best practical solution. Don’t be tempted to chill the tweezers though – the condensation on the tweezers will stick to the gold leaf and make it a nightmare!
And once topped with their own fleck of precious gold, the dumplings are ready to go.
And then the ultimate test – place the dumpling on soup spoon or bowl, break that skin and watch that soup spill out. It was so rich and flavoursome that the dumplings didn’t need any additional dipping sauce to enhance their flavour. If only I could get that rich burnt orange soup to be the colour of molten gold..
It’s actually a little obscene to think that this precious shiny metal that has launched innumerable greed-fueled scheming plots, started wars, eroded loyalties, destroyed civilisations, has shaped the course of history and is today, still so valuable, and yet, now we eat it. And as an inert, non-reactive element, it is safe to ingest, but to respect how precious this is, I used only a little to decorate these dumplings. After all, someone somewhere has put in a hard day’s dinkum to mine, refine and process this gold. Or should I say, it’s the correct level of respect afforded to fair dinkum gold? Either way, they’re fair dinkum barbequed prawn dumplings!
Whether or not the fair dinkum phrase can attribute its origins to the Chinese will never be definitively known, but it also doesn’t matter to me as it was ultimately more satisfying to investigate and speculate on the influence and intertwining of the Chinese and Australian cultures.
So, what do you think? Which theory is fair dinkum for you?