A Brief History of the Pu Pu Platter
Behold the Pu Pu platter at Shanghai. River
Photo by Joanna O'Leary
It's inevitable. We've finally chosen our main dishes after the requisite debate about getting old favorites (sesame chicken, peking duck) or trying something new. The only task left in completing our order is deciding on appetizers. I always want crab rangoon, he wants fried wontons; we both also want spare ribs, sort of. Oh, and maybe egg rolls.
"Let's just get the Pu Pu platter," he says. Done and done.
Does the scenario above remind you of similar scenes from your life? I'm not surprised. Although I recognize I'm particularly vulnerable to order paralysis in the face of large menus on which everything sounds good, I know the American-Chinese food appetizer conundrum is widespread.
Why else would they have invented the Pu Pu platter?
"Official" histories of the Pu Pu platter (sometimes "pupu" or "pu-pu" but NEVER "pooh-pooh") will tell you that though the dish has its origins in American Chinese cuisine, the name is actually derived from the Hawaiian word pū-pū, which means a type of hors d'oeuvre, relish or small bite. Hawaiian Pu Pu platters involve a more diverse spectrum of nibbles, ranging from smoked meats to grilled fish and vegetables to teriyaki to rice and sushi.
In the realm of American Chinese food, Pu Pu platters are more narrowly defined. There will be fried things, most likely egg rolls, wontons, crab puffs/rangoon and probably pork ribs or chicken wings. A hibachi grill might come with the platter and/or some part of the dish might already be on fire as it's presented to the table (in such cases, this step, I assume, is skipped in the takeout version).
In Houston, I'm partial to the flaming Pu Pu platter at Shanghai River, which comes with all the usual suspects plus cherries and pineapples.
One final note: There is no law that says a Pu Pu platter must be shared among multiple people and I boldly challenge anyone who claims that that is the "point" of the dish. If anything, the purpose of the Pu Pu platter is to provide the consumer with a comprehensive buffet of appetizer options, and well, if it's just you doin' the consumin', so be it.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.