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.