I first met yerba mate in 2008 when I first traveled to Uruguay and Argentina. I’d read about it online before going–I wondered if I’d get a chance to try it. Then, midway through a short hike, our guide told us to climb up into the bird watching tower. There in the jungle of Misiones Province, I shared my first mate with Jordan and our hiking guide. What was I thinking as I first tasted that mate? It just tastes like green tea to me. I didn’t understand what the big deal was.
Throughout the rest of our trip, we were stunned to see how serious this mate business was for people. There we were, marveling at the amazing Iguazú Falls from the slippery viewpoints. And everyone around us had seemed to have packed in their mate. On their hips. To a national park. Into nature. I couldn’t even imagine folks from the US doing such a thing with their Starbucks (well, at least not so many of them at one time).
We never did try it again on that trip, but before returning home, we got lost, needed to ask for directions, and wandered into a gift shop. Feeling as though we should buy something to thank the shop-owner for her hospitality we bought a mate (the cup) and a bombilla as souvenirs. Never once have we used them.
After three months in Argentina, I’m finally starting to understand it’s place within the culture a bit more. I say a bit because there is still some mystery involved as far as I’m concerned. Argentinos have a sixth sense for when the cup should be passed, when the mate should be replaced, etc.
While here, I asked someone how long it had been since they’d gone a week without a mate. He told me probably over ten years ago. It’s an everyday thing, a habit. He’d only not had mate while traveling outside of the country or when he was having some health issues. It’s so ingrained in the culture that they seldom stop to think about it unless there is someone like you or I there to ask questions.
But when they do stop to think about it, it’s serious–as demonstrated by this long poem outlining the love for and place of mate in society. The poem goes on to say that someone becomes an adult when they have put that kettle on the burner and made their first mate when no one else was around. Funny, people usually tell me they started drinking it around the age of 12-14. That probably fits in with the timeline, huh?
Okay, so we know it’s serious, but what is it?
What Is It?
Here’s what mate is going to look like when someone hands you a steaming cup of it. It is the dried leaves of the mate plant steeped in hot water. There is some caffeine in it, but not much compared to your cup of joe.
Here’s what mate looks like growing as an actual plant. It’s member of the holly family.
Where and When to Drink It
I recently read an article in which a Spaniard admitted to trying to order a mate in the bar while visiting Argentina. Although I can’t swear that I haven’t committed a bigger faux pas, this is one I have avoided. Because I shamelessly ask questions like these before doing it.
So, why can’t you order mate in a bar or at a restaurant? Mostly, because it’s a pretty communal thing. That mate gets passed from person to person if you’re in a group, and it might be a bit strange in a restaurant or bar setting.
Other than that, though, it seems like it’s pretty fair game. People drink it at home–alone or with their friends and family. I’ve seen people drink it work often (and of course offer it around the office). I’ve seen people sharing a mate in the park. I’ve seen people stop for a mid-hike mate at the peak of the mountain. I’ve seen couples passing that mate back and forth on our bus trips and in the bus terminal. And, it seems, no road trip would be successful if there is not enough mate to last the whole trip. Drink it in the car if you want to, but please, have someone else prepare it. I don’t want any accidents. Don’t worry if you don’t think you have enough hot water for the trip. Some roadside stops have thermos-filling stations for your mate needs, and if they don’t, you’ll probably be able to convince someone to fill it up with hot water. They’ll understand.*
Early on, I was under the mistaken impression that if I wasn’t thirsty, it was normal to say “no, thanks” to mate. But mate is not drunk because one is thirsty. If you’re in a small group/meeting someone for the first time/visiting their home, have at least the first cup offered to you. (Stop listening to the voice in your head that says sharing a straw is germy). I can’t tell you how happy I made a traveling companion when I started joining in on the mate rounds. That is, until we realized that with everyone on board drinking mate, we might not have enough yerba to last for the trip. Eek!
What You Need
At the very least, you need hot water, the mate itself (yerba mate), a mate (the name for the cup) and a bombilla (the metal straw and filter). Optional items include a thermos so you can make that mate on the go, sugar, some colder water to temper the hot, and a mate kit to store all that in. More often than not, you’ll also need some company.
The best place to buy the actual mate? Your local grocery store or convenience store (in Argentina or Uruguay, that is) is sure to have some. More and more often, you’ll also be able to find it in your local North American grocery stores. Otherwise, you could head to a specialty tea shop or even online.
I’ve asked a couple people about what I need to look for when choosing my mate (the cup). There are sooooo many variations that I feel overwhelmed even looking at them. Traditionally, they are made with gourds, but you can find them in nearly every shape, size, material, or color. The verdict? If you plan on using it in the car, look for a smaller opening (so as not to spill much). Beyond that, it’s just a matter of personal taste. Think that one looks cool? That’s the best one for you.
Bombillas aren’t any easier to choose as they seem to come in nearly as many variations. If you’re really averse to sucking up a piece of mate, look for smaller openings at the end. Oh, yeah, and if you’re going to drink a lot, think of buying a little cleaning brush for it. 🙂
Like the other items, mate kits come in various shapes and sizes. It’s all about preferences.
As for a thermos, any one seems to do the trick. Just make sure you get one. As I type this, every single desk in the office has a thermos on it. Indispensable if you plan to drink mate non-stop throughout the day, I suppose.
How to Prepare It
I only know the basics here folks. But I’ll give it a shot.
- Put bombilla in the mate (cup). Fill the mate with the yerba. Don’t pack too tight, but fill pretty close to the top.
- Add sugar if using. Just about a teaspoon or so near the bombilla. (I prefer my mate bitter, so skip this)
- Pour in your hot water. If it’s too hot (boiling) it’ll make it too bitter (my opinion, I suppose).
- Pass to person one. They sip through the bombilla until the infused water is gone.
- Repeat steps three and four, giving to the next person, until everyone but you has had it. Add more sugar if/when necessary.
- Finally take your turn. Then start 3 (2 if desired) through 6 again.
- If you see that it’s all been wet, and it starts “floating,” you know you’ve got to toss that yerba and refill.
People can drop out if they want. It’s allowed. In fact, here in Tucumán, if you don’t want any more, just say gracias when you had the mate back after your turn. That’s the cue that you’re finished. This, however, isn’t true in all regions, so if you follow this guideline elsewhere, people might think you’re not gracious enough. No idea.
For me, mate boils down (oh, no, pun not intended, because remember, if you boiled your water, it’d be too bitter) to this:
In Argentina, drinking mate is part of the culture. It’s something special here. When I return home, I’ll look favorably upon the mate moments I’ve had. Not much beats a mate and cookie stop in Calchaquí Valley.
Still, at home, mate won’t mean the same thing. Stripped of the culture and the community, mate, (to me) is, well, just something to have when I have a craving for, you know, green tea.
*These few sentences may only apply (and probably do only apply) in specific parts of Latin America…and maybe Syria, where it’s supposedly quite popular.