The pu pu platter, which also has been called the po po 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.
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 an organized platter, with a small hibachi grill nearby to let diners apply the final char.
Hawaii is where the pu pu platter first took shape, with pu-pu being the native word for "snail," though it also refers to hors d-oeuvres. The name is so pervasive that locals differentiate between a heavy and light pu pu platter. 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.
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.
Over the decades, Chinese restaurants and tiki bars across the world began offering the platter as a standard menu item. Soon, many of the 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.
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 marinading the chicken ahead of time in ingredients like Worcestershire sauce, paprika, lemon juice, garlic and other Asian spices.