Probably the most surprising of all the rituals when you first arrive to Argentina, ‘mate’ is integral to the gaucho culture and learning how to drink it is an art. Pronounced mat-aay, mate is the name of the herb and the pot or gourd from which you drink it. The yerba mate (herb, Ilex paraguariensis for those who care) grows wild in the subtropical jungles of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Bolivia. It is renowned for its energetic properties, and is an old Guarani tradition from the native Indians in South America. Basically it is a herb tea but it brings with it a host of traditions and closely guarded rituals.
Before you learn how to prepare a mate, you have to learn the ‘what not to do’ rules. To start with, mate is a shared experience. One cup of mate is passed around the room to all share from one vestibule whether you are family, friends or strangers. It is taken as a deep offense if you don’t want to share your mate with someone, so be prepared to share the love. And try to remember the order it is going around the room, in general it will pass around in the same way it came the first time.
The other ritual that is important to learn so that you don’t insult the locals is to always finish your mate – don’t leave water in the gourd (the cup), be sure to suck it all out with the bombilla (the straw). Another important rule of thumb is to never move the bombilla. You don’t stir mate, the bombilla sits in the same place throughout the drinking experience. And finally, once you say ‘gracias’ (thank you) it means you are finished drinking. So if you do want more of this rather addictive herbal tea, then save your thank you’s till the very end.
How to make a perfect mate
• Fill your mate gourd about half way with the yerba mate. Put your hand over the top and turn it upside down so all the powdery leaves sit on top, then flip it back over the right way up.
• Now you need to turn the mate to one side so that the herbs all sit on one side of the mate gourd, and put the bombilla into the empty side of the mate gourd next to all the herbs.
• Heat water until it is almost boiling (don’t let it boil otherwise it will burn the herbs and make them bitter) and pour it in to the empty side with the straw until it reaches the level of the herbs.
• Drink the mate through the bombilla (don’t stir it!) and take care to drink it slowly as it can get very hot. The taste is usually a bitter, green tea style taste and sometimes different herbs or citrus flavours are added. It might also be served with sugar to make it a little sweeter, and in the hot Eastern parts of Argentina they even drink it mixed with cold juice!
• Return the mate once you’ve sipped all the water out (it should make a pleasing gurgling sound when it is dry) and pass it back to the person pouring the mate.
• Enjoy the ritual as it is passed around the circle and the gossip that it usually incites.
50 Shades of Mate
When you are talking about one of the most popular hot beverages in South America, there are of course many variations. If you get hooked to the local herb, try mixing it up with some of these variations:
- Orange or citrus peel. Adding a sprinkle of dried citrus peel gives it more aromatic complexity and is a popular variant. You can add your own homemade citrus peel, or look out for special packets that add them to the blend.
- Mint and other herbs. Just like the citrus peel, some people opt to add a few other herbs into the mix. Give it a go!
- Sugar. To sweeten the bitter taste of mate, adding a teaspoon of sugar every 2-3 water refills is popular. If you are on a diet, you can try the artificial sweetener method.
- Drink it with juice. Especially in the hotter regions in the north of Argentina (around Iguazu in particular), you’ll find people drinking their mate with cool orange juice instead of hot water.
- In a bag. Can’t get down with the gourd and bombilla? You’ll find mate tea bags too, they make life a little easier but there’s no doubt they lose a bit of the cool factor.