There’s something about thoughts of Hawaii and tropical islands that just make people happy. Throw a party into the mix and you’ve got an instant crowd pleaser: a tiki party with a Polynesian Pop theme.
Many think to throw these kinds of parties during the summer in their own backyards, but I like to have them once the weather cools down, especially once the rain and snow return. They bring a little bit of tropical sunshine right inside your home to help you get through the longer nights. With ideas for tropical decor, exotic cocktail recipes, and Asian-Hawaiian inspired finger foods, you can turn your basement or rec room into your own island paradise.
Get Some History
Tiki parties were born out of tiki-themed restaurants like Trader Vic’s and Don the Beachcomber, made popular in the 1930s. The golden age of tiki crossed over 40 years from the end of Prohibition to the beginning of Disco. Polynesian Pop and tiki culture reached its peak in the mid-20th century, during the mid-century modern movement, influencing art, architecture, clothing, music, and food and drink offerings of the time.
Although inspired in part by tiki mythology and carvings, this made-up cultural trend created in Hollywood was more of a form of American kitsch than a true Polynesian art form. The Polynesian elements were borrowed to create an atmosphere of island culture as an escape. When you arrived at a tiki restaurant or bar, you were transported to another place, far from home. Throwing the right tiki party can make guests feel the same way.
“You can have more fun with a flower behind your ear, a sparerib in one hand, and a drink in the other, than you ever will all swathed in damask, sterling, and cut crystal.” – Trader Vic
Decorate With Natural Elements
For a tiki party that’s not tacky, start with natural elements like fresh flowers, tropical fruit, banana leaves, bamboo, and sea shells. No tiki party is complete without some hand-carved tiki statues used to decorate throughout. Tiki statues are usually wooden or stone carvings of Polynesian gods that were historically used to mark sacred places.
Set an edible centerpiece featuring an arrangement of tropical fruits, citrus, and beautiful flowers in a carved, tiered, monkey pod serving dish or large wooden bowl. To bring the feel of lush island greenery to your table, wrap candle holders with banana, peace lily, or hosta leaves tied with twine or raffia. Skip the plastic straws for your guests’ drinks and instead provide paper straws that look like bamboo as well as paper umbrellas and fruit spears to decorate cocktails.
Tidbits and Pupus
When planning your tiki party, it’s important to keep in mind that what really makes the party is the food and cocktails. The food should be a fusion of Hawaiian and Asian cuisine with an Americanized twist to create sweet and spicy flavor profiles. All creatively presented to demonstrate island cooking’s most defining characteristic.
The 1950s and 60s were a main influence in the foods you see served at the tiki parties of today. The food on a toothpick phenomenon gave way to an array of fun finger foods known at tidbits and pupus. A popular dish from that time, which I serve at my own tiki parties, is grape jelly mixed with Heinz Chili Sauce heated over low in a slower cooker for 3-4 hours with frozen meatballs. You can serve the meatballs right out of the slow cooker to keep them warm until they quickly disappear.
The centerpiece of any Polynesian party, the pupu platter, can be piled with crab Rangoon, Chinese-style spareribs, fruit kabobs, kahlua pork sliders, spring rolls, glazed chicken wings, and pot stickers. Food can be served in hollowed-out fruit such as coconuts or pineapples. Use banana leaves you can pick up in the frozen section of Asian markets as platters, or purchase some used monkey pod serving dishes at your local thrift store. For a simple dessert, serve coconut cupcakes decorated with retro hula dancer toppers.
Serve Up the Mai Tai
A resurgence of Polynesian Pop and tiki culture accrued in the late 1990s, bringing with it a resurgence of interest in original exotic cocktails. The Mai Tai is considered the holy grail of quintessential tiki cocktails. A tiki bar classic created by Trader Vic in 1944 in Oakland, CA, the combination of gold and dark rums, orange curacao, orgeat syrup, and lime juice will kick off any party.
- 1 ounce gold Martinique rum
- 1 ounce dark Jamaican rum
- Fresh-squeezed juice of 1 lime
- 1/4 ounce B.G.Reynolds’ Syrups and Bitters hand-crafted orgeat syrup
- 1/4 ounce rock candy syrup
- 1/2 ounce of orange Curacao
- Crushed ice
- Garnish with mint and lime shell
Cut lime in half; squeeze juice from lime over crushed ice in a mai tai or double old fashioned glass. Crushed ice is crucial to this recipe and should not be substituted. Save one half spent lime shell. Add remaining ingredients to a cocktail shaker, except the garnish, and at least 2 cups of crushed ice. Hand shake for about 10 seconds. Pour strained into the glass you prepared. Sink your spent lime shell in the drink, and garnish with a mint sprig after you smack it between your hands to release its essence. Now you’ve got something that’s out of this world, the best! Maita’i roa ae!
Recipe by Trader Vic, circa 1944
Wear Vintage Hawaiian
To put the finishing touches on your tiki party, you will want to dress the part. Ladies, gather up a vintage Hawaiian dress and a flower to put behind your ear. If you are in a relationship, you will want to wear the flower behind your left ear to show you are taken. A vintage aloha shirt is a must for the men. If you don’t have any vintage Hawaiian in your closet, you can easily find them at your local thrift store or on-line. If you want to add a lei to round out your outfit, opt for one made of fresh flowers and skip the fake ones.
With these tiki party tips, decorating ideas, and recipes, you will be able to bring a little taste of the tropics into your home any time of the year. Your guests will be amazed by your attention to detail down to your vintage Hawaiian outfit. Don’t forget to greet them all with, “Aloha!”
All photos are courtesy of the author.