Dollars for beans
Story and photos by Sandra E. García
It’s that time of year. While many look to the break of spring to raid the local drugstores for chocolate eggs or Peeps, others turn to another special treat: habichuelas con dulce, or sweet beans. Here, we present an earlier piece in 2012 on the delicacy. Dig in!
Got a dollar?
Then step right up, as just 4 quarters or a single dollar bill will buy you some of the sweetest delight you’re ever to find in a steaming Styrofoam cup.
Known as “habichuelas con dulce,” or, literally, “sweet beans,” the portable liquid delicacy is precisely that: sweet.
Reminiscent of hot cocoa but sweeter, habichuelas con dulce is a creamy, silky, sweet broth flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, and filled with dense morsels of beans and raisins. It is a classic, traditional Dominican drink/dessert/snack that can be served cold, but is more frequently doled out hot and quick, particularly along St. Nicholas Avenue near and around West 182nd Street, where street vendors have created a brisk business from shopping carts outfitted with huge Thermoses and neat rows of plastic cups and spoons.
“I’ve bought habichuelas con dulce in other places and it just doesn’t taste as good!” exclaims Ybelkis Sánchez, who traveled from New Jersey on a recent wintry afternoon to enjoy a cup then, and a two-dollar container to enjoy later.
“I’ve been coming here for the last 5 years. It’s the best recipe I’ve ever had,” added Sánchez, who even went so far as to impugn family for the sake of celebrating the habichuelas con dulce she was enjoying.
“My mother’s recipe is not even this good,” laughed Sánchez.
While habichuelas con dulce are a staple of Easter season, and are typically made in large batches of home-made vats just before Good Friday, the beans are far from relegated to seasonal appearances. Any time of the year, be it chilly or balmy, venturing out onto St. Nicholas Avenue for a sweet beans fix will net you happy results.
Small round vanilla crackers are usually thrown into each small cup so that you can experience a gentle crunch as contrast against the silky texture. And while some like it cold, most prefer the sweet snack as a beverage, slowly sipped and piping hot.
On a recent crisp 32-degree afternoon, against sharp 25 m.p.h. winds, the food stand prevails, as do its customers, who line up in a snaking line that extends onto Amsterdam Avenue. Young and old alike await a sweet cup of warmth, anticipating cupping their gloved hands around a cup. And while others make noise about the wait and stamp their feet impatiently, others, particularly as they inch closer and closer to the stand, quietly rejoiced.
“He’s been doing this for so long he’s created his own flavor,” said Yesenia Pérez, referring to the shy vendor to whom she happily paid her dollar. “He,” famed locally, but opting for anonymity, dutifully ladled out his sweet beans and ducked his head shyly in response.
“That’s the reason why people keep coming back,” continued Pérez, “because the flavor of his habichuelas con dulce is like no other. It’s why he is still here.”
The taste for some is an instant jolt of happiness for others, a reminder of home.
“This is a tradition of ours (Dominicans) that I am happy I can find here,” said Miguel Díaz as he fidgeted around to stay warm. “In my country, we don’t eat this all year long, but to find it this good here, I’ll eat a cup every day,” he added raising his voice to make sure the vendor heard his praise.
Ladles are constantly filled at the corner, and their contents are carefully poured into small cups and containers, for some bringing them back to a tradition and taste of home, for others simply offering a sweet respite from the cold.
Whatever your reason, bring your dollar, join the line and be patient.
The rewards will be, well, sweet.