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A whole new world of food at SPIFFS

To many foodies, the Nibbler included, ethnic food gives us a chance to travel _ if only through our stomachs. It's cheap, quick and can be every bit as instructive and exciting.

For us, nothing beats the St. Petersburg International Folk Fair as an edible geography lesson. It's also a delicious reminder that the folks of Tampa Bay are not as bland as they may appear. In addition to Indians of various tribes, we come from Afghanistan, the Fiji Islands, Italy, Peru, Sweden, Turkey and some 40 other countries.

This weekend, SPIFFS brings all of them together at Vinoy Park on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront for what looks like a mammoth church supper, bake sale and picnic on the grounds. Expect lots of folding chairs, craft displays, metal boxes full of change and nice people who have spent hours cooking up their goodies.

How about mai-mai, the dip Nigerians make from peeled, ground beans, callaloo soup from Dominica, bread pudding the Aramaic way and endless empanadas and egg rolls, curries and escovitch, pierogi and kebabs? It's all made by people for whom this is home cooking, not adventurous chefs "exploring" exotic cuisines.

This authentic smorgasbord started out as a one-time celebration for the Bicentennial with 22 ethnic groups. Like the melting pot, it keeps cooking.

For the newest groups, selling a few baked goodies is like serving an appetizer of their culture to win recognition for their heritage:

Aramaic: Kibbi of beef and wheat, tabouli salad and fatyir spinach pies will introduce you to the Aramaic people, an ancient culture that began in Syria. Although they no longer have a land, "We are very many," dispersed from Iraq to Turkey, New Jersey and Florida, says Souad Klaib. There are 30 to 40 families here, keeping alive the distinct flavor of their food, language and religion (Syrian Orthodox).

Asian Family Center: A variety of Asian foods reflects the organization's commitment to showcase the diversity of the Asian people it serves. "We used to hear "Asian' was mostly Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino," says director Bun Hap Prak, but the Asian-American population in Tampa Bay now includes many Laotians, Cambodians like himself and, increasingly, the Hmong people from the mountains of Vietnam and the Thai Dam people from the mountainous far north of Indochina. "We don't all talk the same language or eat the same food."

Dominican: Meat patties, codfish cakes, plantains and rice palleau are popular throughout the Caribbean, but here they have the unique creole flavor of Dominica, a mountainous island between Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Henri John says hundreds of Dominicans have moved to the bay area, and they're eager to tell people what's special about their country: its French-British patois, waterfalls and boiling lake, native Caribs and above all the music of quadrille, zouke and cadance.

Nigerian: Without any African restaurants here, Nigerian emigres around Tampa Bay can get native foods only in their own homes; people who don't know African food will get a rare taste of it at SPIFFS.

Pay attention, and you may taste roots of Caribbean and Louisiana favorites in zuma meat pies, jambalayalike jeloff rice, fried plantains, okra and beans in various forms.

"I think they will like it," says John Ezulike, judging by the reactions he and other Nigerians get when they cook for their non-African friends and in-laws.

The first day of the festival is reserved for school pupils, but adults can eat and learn their fill from 2 p.m. Friday through the weekend. (Admission is $5 for adults, $3.75 for seniors, $2.25 for children 6 to 14; for information, call 327-7999).

Whatever your heritage, you should find a taste of home _ and a taste of something different. So will Bun Hap Prak; when he can get away from his booth, he plans to spend some time with people from Lithuania, Estonia and other newly independent countries of Eastern Europe.

The Nibbler? My taste buds want to go around the world.

Hold the meatballs

Obviously the Nibbler's an omnivore, but there are days I eat what amounts to a modestly vegetarian diet. Today, promoted by vegetarian lobbyists as the Great American Meatout, is a good time to try it.

One day of abstinence won't make you an animal rights activist, but it will give you a taste of a diet that can be cheaper and more healthful (certainly much lower in cholesterol).

I don't go cold turkey on milk or eggs, but forgo meat and seafood (and try to go easy on the cheese) for a day, and you can still eat well: tomato mushroom pizza, pasta with vegetables or pesto, a stir-fry, beans and rice, veggie burgers, black bean chili, eggplant lasagne, an old-fashioned vegetable plate, ratatouille or just a big bowl of vegetable soup and bread.

You should give it a try _ and so should restaurateurs.

Check your menu to see that vegetarians have an option.