An outsider’s guide to drinking Mate
It is hard to travel through Argentina and not come into contact with the custom of Mate. I was a bit perplexed when I received my first gourd of Mate. What in the world was this bitter substance, and was it a culture faux pas to add sugar or just simply not drink? Keep reading, and by the end of this post you will have answers to all these questions.
So what is it precisely?
Mate is a hot beverage made from the dried leaves of yerba mate steeped in hot water usually served in a gourd (dried pumpkin) and drunk from a silver straw (bombilla). The two ingredients are hot water and…yerba mate. The taste is similar to green tea, although arguably more bitter.
Yerba mate (mate herb) are the dried leaves (and twigs) from the Ilex paraguariensis tree, a type of holly. The tree is grown in South America, mainly in Northern Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Southern Brazil.
Where do I drink Mate?
Maté can be found in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil.
Surprisingly enough, it seems that the Druze community in Syria and Lebanon have also gotten a taste for this hot beverage and now import from Argentina.
Yes, ok, those are the countries, but in which setting and with who do you drink Mate?
From my experience there is no fixed time or setting to drink Mate. It is socially acceptable to drink during any hour of the day and pretty much anywhere you can get your hands on hot water. It does contain caffeine, so personally I treat it like coffee and will not drink it after 6PM.
Mainly the drink is shared with friends (and family), although I have known people to drink it on their own.
Sounds good, but what does it taste like?
Mate is a bitter drink, which can be compared to green tea. It comes in various gradings of bitterness, with the female plants being less bitter but also containing less caffeine. I am a big green tea drinker and even for me it took some time to get use to the bitter taste. However, I rather enjoy the taste now and look forward to my little afternoon pick me up.
If the taste is too bitter, you can get flavoured Mate. I tried the orange zest Mate which to be fair was still pretty bitter. Another alternative is to add some sugar or honey, although to be fair that is harder to do when sharing.
How to make it and more importantly how to consume it?
So you don’t just “make mate” or even “drink mate”. There is a ritual surrounding both and believe me when I say, it’s taken pretty seriously.
I will not pretend to be an expert at the making of this drink, but have the fundamentals down. Step one – find a bunch of friends to share with. Step two- boil water. Be careful, you do not use boiling water to drink Mate- it needs to be around 70°C to 85°C. Step three- fill the gourd 2/3 of the way with yerba mate. Step four- place the bombilla in the gourd. It goes in at a 45° angle. Step five- pour the hot water into the gourd, on the opposite side of where you placed the bombilla. Be careful, you only pour on one side to avoid getting overly soaked yerba.
In terms of consuming the Mate, as said usually it is shared. There is one person “in charge” of filling up the water and passing along the gourd. The person will look at you and pass you the gourd with the straw in your direction. Whatever you do, do not move the straw as this would mean you are also moving the yerba mate and could cause you to get all the chunks.
When you have had enough, you say “gracias” and next round you will be skipped as you have indicated you are done. The trick is to sip until the water is all gone and then pass the gourd back to the person who is in charge of the water. That person will refill the gourd, and pass it to the person next to you. And this goes on, until the hot water is finished.
Don’t just take my word, go out and try it for yourself!
You can rest assured, when in any of the Mate drinking countries you will get a chance to try this delicacy. Many hostels keep a stock of yerba mate around for you to try. Alternatively, if they do not have fresh yerba mate you can go to the local supermarket and get yourself some Mate Cocido, or toasted mate which comes in teabags and is easy to transport.
The oddest location I shared Mate has got to have been on a bumpy road with a couple of road workers cruising along the south of Argentina. The men were so kind to pick me up while hitchhiking and we started off our 2h journey by sharing some Mate in a plastic cup and chatting about life.
There, now you know the ins and outs of this wonderful drink. Now all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the (bitter) taste.