Following last week's gargantuan meal at Real Azteca in Hunts Point, I decided to take a long walk down Westchester Avenue. While my idea was to work off some of the calories accrued from the enchiladas michoacan, it didn't take long for my stomach to wander.
Like a child who, too full to finish his portion of broccoli, insists to his mother that dessert is different, I tried to justify a purchase of an elote here, a gordita there. Realizing my folly, I stumbled upon a rare and traditional beverage from the Caribbean that I had first encountered in the early winter: mavi (also known as mabi), a drink made from the boiled bark of the mauby tree.
Just south of the Intervale stop on Westchester Avenue, I spotted a makeshift street stall spilling out of a beat-up white van. Its a scene you'll see in all of the Bronx's Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods. Like the couple who hawk island coconuts pierced for sipping under the southern terminus of the Grand Concourse, many of these vendors only sell fruit. But here, beside the containers of sliced mango, were gallons and half-gallons ($5 and $8) of mavi.
As a popular folk concoction that belongs to a plethora of cultures, from Guyana to Puerto Rico, mavi is not given to absolutes. It can be fermented or not, made with spices like aniseed, sweetened, and is lightly carbonated. Some versions are more bitter than others; Dave Cook writes that mauby, a related drink made from the same bark, approaches astringency. While the beverage is commercially available, often sold as concentrate, at least one Trinidadian food blogger believes its a cloyingly sweet disgrace to the real deal. One thing everyone does seem to agree on is that the drink is an acquired taste, always taken ice cold.
I had my first taste of mavi on the streets of Soundview, sold out of the back of a van by Dominicans who told me the drink was made by someone in the north Bronx. (Based on Dave Cook's descriptions, it seems that Papo Frutas in Harlem shares their source.) There, it was sold to me by the cup and as I remember had a delightfully fizzy and funky flavor.
The mavi peddled on Westchester Avenue, which the vendors indicated they made themselves, was sold as concentrate. Unmixed, it was sweet to the point of being syrupy; it's possible this was intended as concentrate. But even mixed it was, to my memory, much sweeter than the mavi I first experienced and, to my chagrin, displayed little of the fermented quality that first drew me in. Its carbonation was, likewise minimal, though you do get a nice and frothy foam.
On Sunday, I returned to Soundview. This time around, I bought my mavi by the half-gallon ($5, $10 for a gallon.) According to the men at the stand, their mavi is fermented for 2 weeks. This gestation period is evident in both the bulging, rotund shape of the plastic milk jug and the fleet of bubbles that rocket upwards.
This mavi's color is a lighter and more appealing amber, the flavor mellower and more balanced. The sweetness, while still strong and forward, is not so syrupy as to be overwhelming, and while not as potent as I remember, there is still a mild funkiness that swells up in the aftertaste. Let the liquid rest on the tip of your tongue, and it will induce a faint, but tangible, ticklish sensation.
The relative rarity of homemade mavi in New York means that devotees should pounce on an opportunity to pick some up, but for those less willing to go out of their way there is some good food to be had nearby. There are some of the Bronx's best pupusas as Pupuseria Salvaderena, your closest tasty bet, empanadas and bolon de verde at Ricuras Panaderia on Watson Avenue, and the delicious Bangladeshi cooking of Neerob, slightly further afield but always worth the trip.
Westchester Avenue Mavi Vendor
Westchester Ave & Rev. James A Polite Avenue, The Bronx, NY 10459 (map)
White Plains Road Mavi Vendor
Bruckner Blvd & White Plains Road, The Bronx, NY 10472 (map)