Pu pu platters versus birthday cakes

In my previous posts I’ve mentioned how growing up in a Chinese restaurant was a fantastic experience. Let me tell you about one peculiar cultural mash up: birthdays and pu pu platters.

Check out the beads in the back

Of course my parents wanted me to celebrate my birthday with friends and family, and the festivities involved all the trappings: gifts, games, and food—oh, the food! I don’t think any of my friends were ever really ready for what they experienced. My parents showered all the guests with wave after wave of tasty goodies, culminating in the ever popular pu pu platter.

PupuplatterPu Pu platter. Image courtesy Ned Raggett.

For those of you who don’t know what a pu pu platter is, it’s a partitioned wooden platter filled with various classic Chinese food appetizers. You get spare ribs, egg rolls, golden fingers, teriyaki strips, crab rangoon—the list can go on for quite a while. But the real draw was the center of the platter, which held a cast iron brazier that had its own fire! You can see why a bunch of 10-year-olds might go gaga over the meal. Who can resist “cooking” their food over an open fire? (Although we quickly found out that the chemically fueled fires really didn’t leave a good taste.) And then, when all was said and done, my parents would bring out the birthday cake. I can still remember the refrain to this day, “There’s cake too!!" and thinking, "Oh man, I don’t think I can make it.”

Playing with giant umbrellas for the tiki drinks!

Pu pu platters gained popularity during the Polynesian-style food craze of the 1950s and can be found on most Chinese menus today. I was surprised when I met people who didn’t know what the dish was, or didn’t get the same experience with birthday pu pu platters I did when I was a kid. But this illustrates one of the fun things about Chinese food in America: regional delicacies. Whether completely new inventions or alterations of previous recipes, dishes pop up all over the country and become local favorites. Have you ever tried a Chow Mein Sandwich while in Rhode Island, or the St. Paul Sandwich, from St. Louis? What about a fun night with Scorpion Bowls?

StpaulsandwichSt. Paul sandwich. Image courtesy Oldtasty.

While we continue the preparations for our new exhibit on Chinese food in America, tell us: what are your favorite regional delicacies? Were you surprised that your favorite dish was unknown outside your hometown? Did you discover a rare dish while traveling across country? Let us know in the comments section below.



Cedric Yeh is Deputy Chair and Associate Curator in the Division of Armed Forces History at the National Museum of American History.


Posted in Food History