During a recent trip to Chang Li, a Chinese supermarket in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, I found myself wandering away from the vast produce section and toward a quiet corner in the back stocked with beverages. My eyes focused in on two flavors of Mabi Taino, a carbonated beverage from the Dominican Republic. Chief among the ingredients listed on its label was the fermented bark of the mabi (or behuco indio) tree. Being equally a sucker for the funky flavors of fermentation and for unplanned and impulsive grocery purchases, I added both cartons to my basket.
I didn't really know what I was getting into. Did "Taino" refer to the group of indigenous peoples I knew from the story of Columbus and his voyages? And, if so, was this soda descended from a drink they consumed? Also, what does mabi bark taste like and why bother fermenting it?
In my search for answers, I turned to Chris Maggiolo, a food anthropologist and beverage industry consultant who has studied the culture surrounding mabi (also known as mavi or mauby). According to Maggiolo, the drink has a long if somewhat fuzzy history intertwined with that of the Caribbean islands. The name may be derived from a Taino word referring to medicinal plants which were made into a tea used for treating various ailments.
But Maggiolo also points to a separate theory that possibly explains why mabi is often fermented. The Carib islanders were known for an alcoholic drink made from mâ'bi, a type of red sweet potato. Early British colonists in Barbados adopted the beverage, dubbing it "mobbie".
For a while, mobbie was one of the few options Brits had for replicating the beer-drinking customs of their homeland. As the availability of rum and imported beverages increased, colonists' mobbie intake slowed down, but slaves throughout the Caribbean islands continued to brew and consume the drink.
The shift from sweet potato mobbie to a bark-based mabi may have occurred in the mid-19th century, when a worm epidemic decimated sweet potato crops. Island residents turned to the bark, widely available in the ports, as a substitute. Large quantities of sugar were added to the recipe, along with spices like cinnamon or allspice, to reduce bitterness, aid in fermentation, and increase the alcohol content. By the early 20th century, declines in sugar yields as well as shorter production times may have led to the less-fermented, non-alcoholic version that is common today.
At-home mabi brewing is still exists throughout the Caribbean and in immigrant communities abroad (you can occasionally even find it on the streets of New York). Commercially-produced versions, such as the one I picked up, tend to be more popular among more recent generations who have abandoned home brewing. Recipes vary widely, and some versions are fermented, while others are not.
The Dominican Republic is known for its fermented and sweetened mabi, with Mabi Taino being one of the more widely available commercial brands. So what does it taste like? Of the two varieties I picked up, Mabi Taino Seybano, made with a mix of white and brown cane sugars, was lighter in color and had a much more distinct fermented flavor—the kind you might get from a peach that has been left out to sit a bit too long. The Seybano's sweetness was also on the cloying side, making me understand why the drink is often served poured over mounds of ice. But underneath all the sugar and funky overtones, I could taste something earthy, spicy, and slightly bitter, which left me intrigued.
All of those interesting flavors were front and center in Mabi Taino Cacheo, which counts fruit extracts among the ingredients and has a more complex and nuanced flavor. Made only with brown sugar, it has a caramel-like, almost mapley, color and base, layered with hints of cinnamon and clove. Although many descriptions of mabi compare it to root beer, I'd say it's closer to a spiced and sweetened chai or apple cider, only carbonated. And while you still get the fermented funk in the Cacheo, it's subtler. I can definitely see it as a potential match for rum, lime, or bitters in a cocktail, even if mabi itself has abandoned its alcoholic origins.
Although I found this mabi in a Chinese grocery in a section of the Bronx better known for its large Bangladeshi population, it is also available in many Latin and Caribbean markets. I'll be sure to seek out more. Hey mabi fans, where have you found your fix? Do any of the commercial brands get its blend of sweet, spice, and ferment just right, or is it absolutely essential to track down a homemade brew?