What is a Pu Pu Platter?

Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins
Sushi is often part of a light pu pu platter.
Sushi is often part of a light pu pu platter.

The pu pu platter, which also has been called the po po platter or pupu platter, is a medley of appetizers that originated in Polynesia, but was largely popularized by Chinese restaurants scattered across the United States. Starting several generations ago in Hawaiian culinary culture, the platter is likely to have consisted of items like bacon-wrapped pineapple chunks, teriyaki skewers and shrimp toast.

Egg or spring rolls are often found on a pu pu platter.
Egg or spring rolls are often found on a pu pu platter.

Around the middle of the 20th century, as the appetizer began catching on with American diners more distinctively, Chinese starters became regular staples of the dish — like egg rolls, crab rangoon, barbecued chicken wings, shrimp tempura, and spare ribs. Traditionally, the items are served on a circular, organized platter, with a small grill nearby to let diners apply the final char. Tongs are brought out and items on skewers are served on a pu pu platter for easy serving.

What Does Pu Pu Platter Mean?

In some restaurants a pu pu platter may be served buffet-style.
In some restaurants a pu pu platter may be served buffet-style.

The term pu pu platter originated in Hawaii, though the dish gained popularity in 1950’s American-Chinese cuisine. Hawaii is where the pu pu platter first took shape. The Hawaiian word pū pū is the native word for “snail,” though it also refers to hors d-oeuvres. Because the Hawaiian term pu pu means hors d'oeuvre, a typical pu pu platter consists of a collection of small plates and shareable items, like fruits or vegetables or hot food. The name is so pervasive that locals differentiate between a heavy and light pu pu platter.

What Comes in a Pu Pu Platter?

The Hawaiian term pū pū includes either light and heavy varieties of the platter, or a combination of both light and heavy. The foods offered in a light pu pu platter are usually cold foods. A light pu pu, or pupu, refers to a spread of non-filling appetizers consisting mostly of fruits, vegetables, sushi and the raw fish salad known as poke. Heavy pupu, on the other hand, is considered a full meal, where light items are intermingled with several other characteristic starters like pork spare ribs, teriyaki chicken and prawns. These platters are served buffet-style or table-side. Heavy pu pu platters are also often served on circular platters filled with warm foods. Typically, pu pu platters are filled with favorite dishes like beef teriyaki, crab rangoon, fried shrimp, and fried wontons. You may also find items like one type of egg roll paired with a collection of small dishes.

What Comes in a Pu Pu Platter for Two?

A pu pu platter for two comes with familiar favorites that make up the typical pu pu platter, but a pu pu platter for two serves enough of each item for a minimum of two portions. A pu pu platter for two might serve warm items like chicken wings, chicken fingers, an egg roll, and skewered beef. A pu pu platter for two may also contain light pu pu items, or cold foods like fruits, vegetables, or sushi. Because pu pu platters are often served as appetizers, a pu pu platter for two makes for a great starter to any meal.

What Comes in a Chinese Pu Pu Platter?

Over the decades, Chinese restaurants and tiki bars across the world began offering the platter as a standard menu item. Soon, many of the seasoned raw fish items popular on Hawaiian platters were replaced by Chinese appetizer fare. A standard Americanized platter in 2011 will invariably include items like barbecued spare ribs and chicken wings, egg rolls with sweet and sour dipping sauce, teriyaki beef or chicken and the fried, cream-cheese-filled, pastry triangles known as crab rangoon. The standard Americanized platter contained many finger foods that could be enjoyed with soy sauce as well as sweet and sour dipping sauce.

The Evolution of the Pu Pu Platter

Many credit the evolution and worldwide popularity of the pu pu platter to dining establishments on the West Coast of the United States, starting in the 1940s. Popularizing Polynesian traditions, California restaurants like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's are pointed to as the progenitors of the tiki restaurant. A popular item on their menus was this platter, featuring many of the same foods already prized in Hawaii.

Another regular addition to the pu pu platter are called golden fingers. These are a Hunan version of batter-fried chicken fingers, called gao doe feng gah. They are made distinctive by marinating the chicken ahead of time in ingredients like Worcestershire sauce, paprika, lemon juice, garlic and other Asian spices.

How to Eat a Pu Pu Platter

Restaurants serve their pu pu platters with tongs or small skewers. Pu pu platters are usually served as appetizers and are often served on large circular dishes or a revolving lazy susan. Tongs and small plates on small skewers allow restaurant-goers to easily share and enjoy the items on the platter.

Because heavy pu pu platters also contain a small grill for reheating food in the center of the platter, skewers are essential for reheating warm items or grilling cold items, like vegetables or fruit. You can also use tongs to reheat items like meat or even to grill fruit. You can even enjoy some of the pu pu platter items with just hands, like chicken fingers, ribs, or chicken wings.

Essentially, a pu pu platter is an appetizer combination platter of a variety of delicious foods. A pu pu platter allows people to easily enjoy a small bite of many different types of food as an appetizer before the main meal. Pu pu platters can also be enjoyed at home.

Simply create a combination of small dishes of fruit, vegetables, and sushi for a light appetizer. You can also combine warm foods like chicken fingers, egg rolls, ribs, and beef teriyaki for a complete meal. Whether you decide to enjoy a light or heavy pu pu platter, or a combination of both, you can enjoy a pu pu platter in a restaurant or your home. The varieties of foods you can enjoy in a pu pu platter are endless and sure to satisfy.

Discussion Comments

Reminiscence

Pu pu platters can be lifesavers if you suddenly have to provide snacks or appetizers for a group. I once had to host an after-work party after the original host canceled out, and I scrambled to come up with a meal I could have delivered in less than an hour. I thought about pizza and sub sandwiches, but then it dawned on me. The local Chinese restaurant had pu pu platters, and they could put several of them together in thirty minutes. It was a nice assortment of finger foods, too.

Cageybird

I know I really shouldn't go there, but I can't help but giggle whenever I hear the words "pu pu platter". I'll see it on a menu and immediately I'll think "poo poo platter". I'll bet other people do, too. It's funny, but also kind of a problem for the restaurant, I think. If potential customers think the dish is an assortment of "poo poo", they might think twice about ordering it. I know I did the first time I heard about a pu pu platter.

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    • Sushi is often part of a light pu pu platter.
      By: rustamir
      Sushi is often part of a light pu pu platter.
    • Egg or spring rolls are often found on a pu pu platter.
      By: Jose Gil
      Egg or spring rolls are often found on a pu pu platter.
    • In some restaurants a pu pu platter may be served buffet-style.
      By: RioPatuca Images
      In some restaurants a pu pu platter may be served buffet-style.