The Anatomy of a Pu-Pu Platter, the World’s Greatest Bar Snack
The ostentatious orgy of appetizers known as the pu-pu platter is perhaps the most famous example of edible tiki fare. Just as tiki drinks are equal parts classic Caribbean recipes, Hollywood showmanship and Pacific Islander culture (as interpreted by tiki arbiters Donn Beach and Trader Vic), the pu-pu platter is an amalgam of Americanized Chinese food, Hawaiian tradition and bar food.
Originally unleashed at the first Don the Beachcomber location in the 1930s, it was a crowd-pleasing platter of foods designed to soak up rum-laden cocktails. Beach likely encountered pū-pū (the Hawaiian word for “snail” or, more generally, “shellfish,” often used to refer to any hors d'oeuvre) on his travels around the Pacific and brought it back with him to the mainland when he returned to California. Beach’s pu-pu was a hybrid of island culture and increasingly popular Americanized Chinese food. Decades later, Beach’s style of pu-pu is still a standby at tiki bars and American-Chinese restaurants.
The pu-pu platter’s strength lies in excess and variety. Fish, meat and fowl all cram together side by side in greasy, indulgent glory, ready to be picked apart by voracious diners in between sips from Scorpion Bowls and hurricane glasses.
There is no one way to pu-pu. The presentation lends itself to adaptation and reckless innovation—but there are some general guidelines. The array of finger foods should be laid out on a round platter or a revolving lazy susan, preferably with a small hibachi grill at the center for diners to reheat items. And the platter should include a selection of items, each of which fits into one of three essential categories: skewered, fried or saucy.
At Blue Ribbon Brasserie in New York—the flagship restaurant in Bruce and Eric Bromberg’s ever expanding empire—the pu-pu platter (pictured) is a perfect example of the dish’s potential, with bites that range from classic tiki to Eastern European comfort to French bistro, all fitting into the pu-pu wheel of foods. Here, a bite-by-bite breakdown of the anatomy of a pu-pu platter as illustrated by Blue Ribbon’s take on what might be the world’s most perfect cocktail accompaniment.
Warmed over the hibachi grill, skewers capture the primal joy of eating flame-licked foods off a stick. At Blue Ribbon, the grand pu-pu platter’s skewered selection includes massive gulf shrimp as well as barbecue chicken and even escargot. Common skewered options on other pu-pu platters include grilled meats like beef and chicken and cubed tropical fruits like pineapple.
Crispy fried foods were bar menu staples long before frickles and mozz sticks. In fact, “Cantonese” shrimp fried in peanut oil was the first “Beachcomber appetizer” on the 1941 menu at the Hollywood location of Don the Beachcomber. The Blue Ribbon pu-pu platter includes old-school chicken-and-mushroom egg rolls, as well as less traditional fried pierogies, inspired by the Brombergs’ New York culinary upbringing. Blue Ribbon’s pierogies take the place of a different fried dumpling that usually claims a place on the platter: crab rangoon (fried puffs of imitation crab meat, cream cheese and scallions). Trader Vic’s has featured crab rangoon on its version of a pu-pu platter (the “cosmo tidbits” platter) since 1956.
A pu-pu platter is a cultural crossroads, particularly when it comes to saucy, messy barbecue. Char siu—Chinese-style spare ribs—sit alongside kalua pork from Hawaii, teriyaki from Japan and even classic BBQ wings. The Blue Ribbon platter features both American-style ribs and wings. The saucy section of the pu-pu platter, like the skewered section, appeals to that carnal desire to eat with your hands. It’s a good thing most tiki cocktails come with a straw because there’s no way you’d be able to hold onto a glass after working your way through a pile of sauce-slathered ribs.
Now that you know the basic anatomy of a pu-pu platter, you’re prepared to encounter one in the wild or, even better, make your own at home. Just remember to hit the key components and try your best to share.