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Pu Pu Platter as Cultural Icon


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I'm working on a magazine article about the pu pu platter, that remarkable conglomeration of fried goodies, sweet and sour sauce, hot mustard, and sterno that was an essential part of "Chinese" restaurant fare in the 1960s and 1970s. It's my contention that the pu pu platter stands at the center of an important cultural phenomenon that happens to have been housed in some stunning architectural wonders.

Take, for example, my boyhood favorite: The Kowloon Restaurant on Route 1 in Saugus, MA. Their "Peninsula Pu Pu Platter" (it was originally just the "Peninsula Platter"; click on the "Nostalgia" link and go to the 1960s menu page 1) is the ne plus ultra of crispy, salty, sweet, meaty and spicy wonder: egg rolls, spare ribs, chicken wings, fried shrimp, pork strips and crispy wontons. It's not a stretch to imagine that many of the appetizers that crowd the menus at your standard sit-down chain restaurant found audiences whose taste buds were primed at these suburban palaces to food.

I'd be very interested to hear about members' experiences with the quintessential pu pu platters in their area. Where did you get them? What was your favorite? What was on the platters? Do you have any classic Polynesian/tiki restauarants in your area that served -- or still serve -- them?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Chris, just an aside on this...

I believe the name is Hawai'ian-Chinese in origin. In the Hawai'ian language, it's a Puu-puu platter where the two consecutive vowels are distinctly pronounced. So Puu-Puu would be pronounced POO-oo POO-oo, like a mumu dress is actually a muu-muu (MOO-oo MOO-oo). It's been shortened to "pu pu" on many Chinese menus. This also makes me wonder if it originated during or after WWII with all the GI's going through Hawai'i.

When I was a wee lad I would giggle when we'd go to a Chinese restaurant and the adults would order the pu pu platter ("They serve poo-poo here?" Kid humor!). I think they're a very American-Chinese offering and a precursor to the current trend of an appetizer sampler platter found in most restaurants these days.

 

“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

 

Tim Oliver

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Thanks for triggering the memory of laughing with my brothers about ordering poo-poo. Kid humor did not, however, interfere with grubby paws grabbing for the goodies: egg rolls, fried shrimp, beef on a stick (who knew what satay was - and no, there was no peanut sauce) and spare ribs are what I remember.

We weren't in a Polynesian or pretend-Polynesian restaurant, just our normal Detroit suburban (filled with transplanted Jewish New Yorkers) Chinese-American joint in a small strip of stores along a street with a lot of other stores and restaurants (Chinese and deli). It did come served in a wooden bowl with several compartments. Some of which didn't quite contain the appetizers, which always made it seem like MORE. What? We were nine.

Edited by hsm (log)
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What a fun topic!

As kids it was a big thing for us to get the pu pu platter - usually for someones birthday. We always went to the Jade Fountian in Clifton NJ. It was served with much fanfare ; the waiter carrying it high and placing it in the middle of the table , than lighting it. The sterno gave off an erie reddish glow (it was always dark in the resturant no matter what time of day). There would be spare ribs, mini egg rolls, shrimp toast, foil chicken and rolled beef. My sisters and I would take our skewers and heat up the food over the flame sometimes setting the deep fried shrimp toast on fire. I used to love going there.

When I got older and could drive, my friends and I went to Lee's Hawaiian Islander in Lyndhust NJ for the pupu platter (not because they would serve those killer drinks to just about anyone that would walk into the place :laugh: ).

I did a search on Lee's and found a thread posted on another forum by Jason Perlow (includes pictures):

http://www.tikiroom.com/tikicentral/bb/vie...c=20217&forum=2

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The Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I've been going pretty much all my life, Empire Szechuan, still has a pu pu platter on the menu, priced at $7.95, which I think is pretty much the same as what it cost in the 1980s. I haven't ordered one since the 1980s, so I'm not sure about what's on it these days, or what kind of serving vessel they use now (it used to be metal, a lot of places used wood, though I wouldn't be surprised to see ceramic platters in use today), or whether the Sterno is still part of the configuration. I looked on menupages.com, which has a menu search tool, and found that quite a lot of Chinese restaurants in New York City still have pu pu platters on their menus. On the Upper West Side alone, there are nine hits.

For me the essential flaw in the pu pu platter was always the same as the problem with most mixed-seafood platters: it's just not within the ability of most low-end kitchens to cook five or six items so they're all ready at the same time, cooked properly and served hot. In my experience the Sterno never did anything to help either. My father was always adamantly opposed to the pu pu platter, insisting that we pick the best appetizers and order them separately. So it was really only something I had when I went out with friends' families. I enjoyed those occasions because of the rebellious aspect but in the end always found myself in reluctant agreement with my father's position on the matter.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Ah, thanks for the trip down memory lane.

When I was out of college and back in the NYC area, my friends and I used to go to the Jade Fountain in Lyndurst as well, and indeed we used to get the Pu Pu Platter, because apparently it had been a family tradition for one member of our group.

But in my youth, my family's Chinese restaurant (read: Chinese-American/Polynesian) was none other than King Yum, in Fresh Meadows, Queens, and we definitely did not have the Pu Pu Platter - we ordered our spare ribs and egg rolls separately, although of course we had them as part of the Family Dinner (one from Column A and one from Column B, you know).

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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Man, great topic, brings back a lot of memories for me too...

My whole family is from the Carteret/Woodbridge area of Jersey, and when I was a kid, with my family having emigrated to the Lancaster, PA area....we would go back to Jersey at least once a month, staying at my Aunts who was then living in Piscataway.

Anyway, I always remember going out for Chinese, it was always a sit down place (this was the late 70's, early 80's), but I don't remember where it was...I don't even remember if your typical strip mall take out Chinese that is so ubiquitous today was even really around then....

I remember the Pu-Pu platter distinctly, it was always the favorite part for my sister and me...I loved the beef on a stick, the shrimp....I remember liking the bland chow mein ok, but thinking it was bland, thank god for the Soy sauce...

The one think that I distinctly remember, and one thing I haven't been able to find at any Chinese place around Buffalo, are the eggrolls...I remember them as very thick, very crunchy, with an incredible green cabbagy filling that was excellent, fresh and crunchy, not kind of thin and mushy that you basically get with all the seemingly pre-made eggrolls you get at take out joints now....

Maybe they were a regional thing, but I chase that eggroll still, but have yet to find any like it...

Don't get me wrong, I still love the typical eggroll you get now, but long for finding the eggroll of my youth.....

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I keep looking at this and going all nostalgic ..you really hit the sentimental button on me with this one!

it is like the Fall River Chow Mien!!! I can not say anymore Chris if you know what I mean you will understand...

something's are so etched into your memory and evoke such intense and happy emotions and a Pu Pu platter for me is just one of them ...so here I will babble away..sorry ...sniff you got me with this one ...shit....

when I will a little girl growing up in Providence RI ...where all the food all around me..in each and every house... was the most impressive Southern Italian ..I think in the world.... in our home mostly we ate Caribbean style or Middle Eastern Jewish food (eclectic childhood yes!)

on our birthdays things changed and we were always asked where we wanted to go out to dinner ..and the answer was always an outstanding "CHINESE!!!"

on the drive there it is all we talked about where the Pu Pu platters... and before the servers handed us our menus even we would yell "Pu Pu platter and no forks please!!!"

the hell with all the rest of the foods ...yeah they were good ..but did they come to the table with a fire pit and sticks to toast your food?????

we could play with fire at the table for crying out loud!!!! and then eat the results!!!

My mother died when I was three ...one of the things she left us with is that ..she taught us right along with learning to eat with a fork ...to eat with chopsticks ...so Chinese food always brought us closer to her

so we had our mother closer

we were in a darkly red exotic place and giant booths to snuggle up in...

we had a fire pit with tiers of tasty foods we could have no where else

they not only gave us sticks to cook with but eating with chopsticks as well????

..how lucky could a kid get anyway?

although I have see many "Pu Pu's" when I travel to Hawaii...I have yet to see the Pu Pu Platter I grew up with outside of RI or Mass.... but really it would not be the same if I did :smile:

thanks for the memories

why am I always at the bottom and why is everything so high? 

why must there be so little me and so much sky?

Piglet 

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Chris,

Have you seen Jeff "Beachbum" Berry's books on Tiki drinks, culture and food? Taboo Table covers the food and Sippin' Safari, his latest, is a cool history of tiki culture in the U.S.

And Holly, turns out the good tiki drinks, at places like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's, were never garnished with an umbrella.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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As a young family, we would go to Minnie's in Modesto, CA. with family and friends. I remember second daughter, then about 6, eating so much of the pu pu platter that she couldn't eat anything else until the coconut ice cream was served.

The main thing I recall about the place was the excellent ribs and the to die for Scorpions. A couple of their drinks would lay you out.

It is still in operation but the original Minnie is long gone. although the restaurant still operates under her name. It has been more than 30 years since I last went there so I have no idea how it is now.

Old Minnie's Menu

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I can not be excepted to remember that as I never stopped at one Navy Grog.

Don's and Trader Vic's were regular expense account expenses.  I miss my expense account.

I'm only going on what Jeff Berry said at a recent talk, since I'm too young to have visited a Beachcomber and I understand that standards have slipped considerably at the remaining Vic. Reading Berry's book, though, it sure sounds like the made some great drinks back in the day.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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My cookbook collection includes Trader Vic's Helluva Man's Cookbook in which he share's his recipes for a number of drinks. Not one of them specifies an umbrella garnish, not do the pics in Trader Vic's Pacific Island Cookbook show any umbrellas.

Official garnish for the Navy Grog, "lime shell, rock candy stick and fresh mint."

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Wow. All these posts have made me realize the childhood experience of snorting beverage out your nose cackling at the Flaming Pu-Pu Platter in a perpetually darkened Chinese restaurant is totally universal.

It's making me want to go order one now.

Better yet, how much fun would a flaming pu-pu platter themed dinner party be? Complete with mai-tais and scorpion bowls, of course, with those little umbrellas.

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Yep, that was pretty much what Berry said. The garnishes were very simple at both Vic's and Beachcomber.

Does the Trader Vic's book give any recipes for Polynesian platters?

Looking over my notes from an interview I did with Berry, he said that Beachcomber basically served Cantonese food. Trader Vic's, on the other hand, was more adventurous. He introduced sushi in 1950s and also had Thai and Middle Eatern dishes on the menu.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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gallery_19804_437_110188.jpg

The Kowloon, in all its glory.

gallery_19804_437_236426.jpg

gallery_19804_437_148180.jpg

The interior is just as luxe:

gallery_19804_437_563814.jpg

gallery_19804_437_559871.jpg

gallery_19804_437_330810.jpg

gallery_19804_437_499396.jpg

I sat in the Volcano Room:

gallery_19804_437_431218.jpg

My Peninsula Pu Pu Platter:

gallery_19804_437_751650.jpg

(Blame the canted frame on my potent, yet umbrella-free Fog Cutter.) Egg rolls, chicken wings, pork tenderloin, spareribs, and fried wantons, served with sweet & sour sauce and hot mustard. Note, please, the evocation of Krakatoa in both the mural and my platter's sterno pot.

What's not to love?

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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Paul and I were just talking about Pu Pu Platters, and outside of one (now defunct) restaurant here in the Twin Cities, it's not something that is on the menus at Chinese restaurants. Anyone else in the Midwest want to comment?

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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I sat in the Volcano Room:

Well, of course you did! Where else would you sit?

When I was growing up, the place with the pu pu platters was the Moon Palace. I remember breaded shrimp and spring rolls and some beef on a skewer that you had to finish cooking over the flame. I don't remember what else was there - but something about the sizzle and the char was very enjoyable.

The Moon Palace looked nothing like your Kowloon. It was a modern space in a strip mall. I imagine it would have been even more enjoyable if they had a Volcano room.

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Chris--

An excellent background reference on this is "American Gourmet" by Jane and Michael Stern. Although there's nothing specifically on the puu puu platter, they use Trader Vic's as a launching point for a discussion of the "exotic" faux Polynesian/Tiki-inspired recipes/dishes of that time.

Side note: I once worked as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant in Halifax in the 80s, and those platters, whenever one came back dirty to the kitchen, how my heart would sink--they were soo hard to wash... :laugh: But not to diminish from the nostalgia and enjoyment on this thread! :smile:

"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the ocean."

--Isak Dinesen

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Chris, any idea what percentage of the tables at the restaurant order the Pu Pu Platters? Do they offer just one on the menu, or are there a variety of different Pu Pu Platters? Can you customize them?

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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The Sterns' American Gourmet is indeed a great book on the subject (and many others). Thanks, Gus.

Susan, the Pu Pu Platters at most places I know have a set list of ingredients, though that list can be different at different places. That is to say: no substitutions. There's usually only one, though at the Kowloon there's an upgraded version including beef teriyaki -- which has been in the top two or three appetizers at the restaurant for fifty years.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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It's my contention that the pu pu platter stands at the center of an important cultural phenomenon that happens to have been housed in some stunning architectural wonders.

On the architecture point, it seems that for a couple of decades the trend turned towards smaller Asian restaurants with minimalist decor. But recently there has been a resurgence of gargantuan showpiece restaurants. I think places like Spice Market, Buddakan and Tao are the successors to the Polynesian-themed restaurants of old, at least in terms of design and decor. The details are different, but the grandiose aesthetic impulse seems similar. I wonder if, 30 years hence, they'll seem as kitschy as the Polynesian places seem to us now.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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