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caribbean cool

Everyone has heard the phrases: young American chefs, new American cooking, fresh local ingredients, regional style. Hardly a food story of the '80s went by without some such reference. For the '90s, only the location has changed. California, Southwest, Northwest, New England and the Midwest have come and gone. The new star in the culinary galaxy is South Florida.

It is no surprise that this cuisine draws on such tropical fruits and vegetables as mango and yuca, hot chilies, tortillas and black beans from the Caribbean _ particularly Cuba _ and Latin America.

How interesting that some of the ingredients bear a certain family resemblance to food of the Orient: lemon grass, Kafir lime leaves, ginger and long beans.

There are strands of India's culinary culture as well: Dal, a side dish of legumes, like split peas, turns up in many meals.

Ask the chefs practicing this style of cooking, and they are at a loss to define it. Norman Van Aken, chef and partner at A Mano and Stars and Stripes in Miami Beach, says what he does is "fusion cooking."

Others call it Nuevo Cubano, but it is much broader than that. Still others call it Nuevo Mondo, but that could be said about all the cooking in this country.

Whatever you call it, this new cooking of South Florida lends itself to the home kitchen because it doesn't demand a battery of assistants.

For warm-weather entertaining, a menu featuring grilled swordfish and plantains with a mango black-bean salsa will keep the kitchen and the cook cool.

What forms this cooking is the tropical climate in which it is eaten. Like all cuisines of the sun, whether in Thailand, Provence or Tuscany, the food is refreshing and light, the flavors bright and clean.

Van Aken likens food to fabric. "It has to feel right," he said, "so that you feel right when you go out and get blasted by the heat."

Cooking food that is compatible with 90-degree heat and 90 percent humidity _ the weather of South Florida for about half the year _ is uppermost on the minds of many of the area's most prominent chefs.

"With the heat of the day, you need something refreshing," said Allen Susser, chef and owner of Chef Allen's in Aventura, a Miami suburb, a sentiment echoed by Mark Militello, the chef and owner of Mark's Place in North Miami.

Despite the strong French classical backgrounds of both Susser and Militello, it is the "mishmash of the Caribbean," as Militello put it, and the long growing season, that attracted them to the area.

Militello's description of the region's bounty is meant to make others envious. "We have seven different kinds of snapper," he said, "golden, blue and stone crabs, farmed soft-shell crabs, local hearts of palm from the Indians, a lot of tropical fruits."

Until this current crop of chefs came along, no one had expanded South Florida's culinary horizons beyond oranges, grapefruits and winter tomatoes. Now there is a sense of exploration.

"The process of discovery is fun," Susser said, "because a lot of Latin American flavors are not that well-developed or found in cookbooks."

Whether it can all be codified is another matter. "It's hard to see if it will ever be tied together," Militello said, but who cares? It's more fun to eat it than discuss it.