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Florida Cuisine's Day in the Sun

The state finds its culinary niche in Cuban, Hispanic, Caribbean flavors

NO trip to Florida is complete without sampling a wedge of key-lime pie, nibbling on stone-crab claws, and sipping pulpy, hand-squeezed orange juice. These culinary delights are as important to the tourist experience as is beachcombing or stopping in Orlando to pay respects to a certain Mouse. Such is the conviction of many who set sandal into the Sunshine State.

But in recent years, a swell of new flavors wafting in from Cuba, Latin America, and the Caribbean have spurred a longer and more exotic list of ``must eats'' for the vacationer - especially in southern Florida.

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With choices ranging from Ajiaco (a stew of Cuban root vegetables, pumpkin, corn, salt pork, and salt beef) to Boliche (Cuban pot roast, usually stuffed with chorizo sausage) and Chile Criolla (a piquant Nicaraguan salsa made with vinegared onions and chilies), Miami menus now more closely resemble their counterparts in Havana or Honduras than in Houston.

But these multicultural menus only hint at the real news: After being eclipsed by cuisines such as Californian and Southwestern, Floridian fare is finally having its day in the sun.

``It was bound to happen. The regional food movement sweeping the nation had to arrive in Florida,'' writes Steven Raichlen in his cookbook ``Miami Spice: The New Florida Cuisine'' (Workman Publishing, 348 pp., 1993, $12.95).

What set southern Florida's culinary revolution in motion? The answer is four-fold, explains Mr. Raichlen. ``First, America has long had a fascination with the Caribbean, and Florida is a way to experience it without leaving home.''

With farmers now growing not only Florida's trademark citrus fruits, but also a bounty of edible exotica - fruits such as mangoes, star fruit, lychees, passion fruit, and sapotes; root vegetables such as malanga, yuca, and taro - tastes of the Caribbean are within reach.

Secondly, political upheavals in nearby countries have brought an influx of immigrants, radically shifting the state's demographics. With a population of nearly 564,000, Cubans are now Miami's most dominant ethnic influence; Nicaraguans follow with a population of 74,000; and the city's Haitian and Colombian communities rank among the largest in the nation.

Each of these groups brings its own cornucopia of foods, flavors, and techniques to Florida's culinary repertory - creating the state's new ``fusion'' cuisine.

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Even Don Johnson had a part to play. Yes, Raichlen also credits the notorious TV sitcom ``Miami Vice.'' ``It certainly didn't hurt in terms of the hipness factor,'' Raichlen says, explaining that the show lent the city a more sophisticated image, which caught the eyes of both tourists and high-profile chefs.

If ``Miami Vice'' put the city on the hipness map, South Beach's new Art Deco district has since epoxyed Miami to that map. ``We've experienced an incredible architectural renaissance here,'' Raichlen says, adding that the district's upscale ambiance draws a cosmopolitan crowd.

As Miami has grown more sophisticated and ethnically diverse, the American palate has become ripe for its offerings. ``Americans have an insatiable appetite for new food experiences,'' Raichlen says. But what's happening in Miami and rippling out to the rest of the state is part of a greater trend: ``The Latinization of the American diet.''

``The Sunshine State is pioneering foods that the rest of the country will eat in the twenty-first century. Hispanic root vegetables, exotic tropical fruits, under-utilized seafoods, seasonings from the Caribbean Basin.... More and more of these foods are turning up in mainstream supermarkets across the U.S.,'' he writes.

Raichlen, who teaches cooking, lectures, and writes a syndicated column on food in addition to writing cookbooks, has witnessed Miami's metamorphosis over the last six years from being ``a cultural backwater to an acclaimed culinary trendsetter.''

``I've been watching this cuisine emerge and happen; it's been incredibly cool,'' he says. ``And, we're an area that people haven't historically taken seriously.''

Food consultant and New York restaurant owner Clark Wolf says a few factors are at play: The spicing up of American cuisine, the explosions of regional foods (``Now it's Florida's turn''), and the fact that this winter has been the harshest in memory.

Chris Schlesinger, who cooks up bold-flavored ethnic dishes at The Blue Room, in Cambridge, Mass., says spiciness is hotter than ever - it's perceived as healthy and cheap. Also, as Americans travel more, their interest is sparked about tastes of other cultures.

Raichlen has noticed a pattern by which a new cuisine enters the mainstream: First, it's popularized by chefs, then by purveyors who make ingredients available, then cookbook writers codify the cuisine, and last, mass-market food companies latch on to it.

Raichlen relishes his role as a food educator, which is apparent in ``Miami Spice.'' He weaves into the book pithy comments and tips about recipes as well as background on ingredients.

With ``Dolphin With Fennel and Saffron,'' for instance, Raichlen writes: ``No, we're not about to cook Flipper! Dolphin is a type of fish, not a porpoise, with a pink-white, firm-textured, mild-tasting flesh. Elsewhere, in the country, the same fish is referred to as mahi mahi.... Dolphin is great for grilling, baking, sauteing, frying, and even smoking.''

Raichlen, who trained at top European cooking schools and worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Brittany, prefers to limit his cooking role to recipe development and family meals (``Alligator didn't go over real big when I served it here'') at his Coconut Grove, Fla. home. His real passion lies in enlightening the public.

``What really turns me on about food is discovering and explaining it, so I don't think there's a restaurant in my future,'' he says. ``And if there is, it'll be a great fish shack or a barbecue joint. It won't be a temple of high gastronomy.''

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