With what seems like a permanent line at 182nd Street and St. Nicholas, it’s obvious that Nidia Rivera’s culinary prowess draws a crowd. And though her skills aren’t exactly a secret, many who frequent her shop may be too busy savoring spoonfuls of her delectable habichuelas con dulce to know how Rivera became New York City’s queen of this quintessential Dominican treat.
Like many immigrants, Nidia moved to the United States because of her children. “‘How am I going to support my children from here?’” the Dominican woman asked herself. So in the early 1990s, a 46-year-old Nidia packed up her bags, left her four children and most of her family behind so that she could arrive in Washington Heights, where her sister lived.
Within two months of arriving in New York City, the Moca-born entrepreneur began selling pastelitos, chocolate y café, and other sweets. Eventually, she realized that just like in Moca, she could sell habichuelas con dulce. According to Diario Libre, she began with a modest six pounds of beans. She ran a more modest operation then. But now, each day she makes approximately 220 pounds of the dish Monday through Friday – a number that she ups by another 110 pounds for the weekends.
In her small industrial kitchen, she stands on a platform to reach the top of the pots that are about as tall as her. To mix all the ingredients – which include cinnamon, coconut, milk, and of course beans – the 72-year-old uses a wooden spoon that looks as though it could power a small raft. Though Nidia’s the one who built a small habichuelas con dulce empire, she hasn’t done it on her own. Her team includes about six people, including her sister and niece who are in charge of sales.
Fulfilling the Dominican diaspora’s insatiable hunger for habichuelas con dulce means a lot of work for this small team. She and two of her sisters-in-law cook from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Her sister and niece begin selling at 10 a.m. and don’t stop until 9 p.m.
When Easter rolls around, things become more intense. Dominicans typically eat the treat around the religious holiday. Though people are certainly eating the treat year round in Washington Heights, it’s on another level when it comes time to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
Check out Rivera at work below: