When it comes to the South, Florida stands alone. She’s like the cool, younger sibling, the half-sister who embraces diversity and tradition alike. The history of the state is unlike any other, traded amongst the French and Spanish and English before settling—or rather, being settled—as wholly American. The immigrants who came to the long peninsula have influenced the state, shaping its communities and its cultures and, most importantly, its food.
Florida’s cuisine is distinctly Southern; her people eat black eyed peas and biscuits like the rest of us. But integrated into our traditional Southern spreads you’ll find unique flavors: the tangy sweetness of tropical fruit and the spicy bite of peppers, complex spices and simple preparation. These unique trademarks of Floridian cuisine are a product of the state’s subtropical climate and the myriad impacts of immigrants from dozens of countries over hundreds of years.
In recent years, one of these culinary styles has emerged in the burgeoning Floridian culinary scene, distinguishing itself from an overwhelming field of flavors. They call it Floribbean.
Though the name is new, the traditions that shaped it are not. Since Spanish toes first touched American continental soil in 1513, their habits—from what they said and how they said it to what they ate—leeched into the communities they came in contact with. Distinct cultures came to share many things, including culinary habits. Similarly, slaves who were brought to both North and South America brought their own dishes, as did the French and English.
The literal and metaphorical melting pot that evolved through these mass migrations held recipes from across the globe. Latin America and the Caribbean held (and still hold) influence from a variety of cultures, from the original societies of the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs, to the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Middle Eastern, African, Chinese, Japanese, and Germans.
Florida, on the other hand, had its own unique history. Its rocky coastline made early settlements difficult, so its cultural influences weren’t transplanted until much later.
When America purchased Florida from Spain in 1819, it wasn’t long until the state’s subtropical climate began appealing to visitors from up North. By the 1870’s, tourism was booming and real estate was as hot as a Florida summer—and those tourists brought their food with them. Simultaneously, with settlement now a much easier possibility, newcomers from around the globe began flocking to the sunshine state. Beginning in the late 1800’s, immigrants came especially from Latin and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia, bringing with them their culinary traditions, including the culinary traditions from immigrants who had previously settled in their lands.
These migrations continued into the twentieth century and carved their mark into Florida’s food scene, especially the mass migration of Cubans to the state in the 1950’s. Today Cubans define the largest minority group in Florida, and their favorite dishes—simmered and spooned up with those of dozens of other migrant populations—are uniquely prepared across the state.
In the 1980’s Florida, especially Miami, took on a new role as caterer to the rich and famous. Chefs began experimenting in the kitchens of the state, crafting new recipes that combined the dozens of traditions and flavors of Florida and her people. It had been happening in the home kitchens of Floridians for decades, as communities collaborated, but now it gained exposure and a name: Floribbean.
Floribbean cuisine is a product of the state’s many immigrants, and the immigrations of their ancestors. Cubans, for example, brought their unique combination of Spanish sapidity combined with Caribbean ingredients, like tropical fruits and spicy peppers. Asian immigrants brought their stringent kitchen principles of only using fresh, local produce and simply prepared fish. Latin American influence, from countries like Mexico, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Argentina, and the Dominican Republic, as well as Caribbean countries like Haiti, the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago, also brought flavors and ingredients, plus dishes like spicy salsas. Floribbean’s spice cupboard holds the flavors of the globe, like red curry and lemongrass and ginger.
Paired with all these worldly influences are the flavors of the land itself. In Florida’s warm, moist climate, tropical fruits like mangos, papayas, plantains, coconuts and citrus flourish. The thousands of miles of coastline provide bountiful fresh fish supplies.
Mix it all up, and you get Floribbean cuisine. Its dishes are comprised of fresh, local ingredients flavored with the complex tastes of that spice cupboard and the tangy juice of Florida’s citrus. The bold and the bland are paired in these recipes for complex results. To appeal to Americanized palates, the eye-watering heat and spice of some of these ancestral dishes are paired with cooling fruit.
Floribbean food is almost inherently healthy. Fish and poultry paired with local fruits and vegetables, without frying or gallons of oil, served fresh. It might be paired with fatty and sugary Southern dishes, but the Floribbean cuisine itself is as clean as they come.
Restaurants like Safety Harbor’s Marker 39 serve dishes that epitomize Floribbean cuisine. Their mahi-mahi is served with jasmine rice, shallot-key lime butter, and West Indies spiced carrot chips, their orange-chili tuna with a crab rangen wonton, pickled ginger, and coconut wasabi sauce. Confit and rolls, bisques and paella, the flavors of the world converge in Floribbean to please the palates of everyone.
SEE MORE FLORIBBEAN CUISINE PHOTOS HERE