Everyone knows that Buenos Aires is a city of tango dancers, steak eaters and red wine drinkers, but its grand obsession with the infused drink ‘mate’ doesn’t rate much of a mention internationally. Many an expat fresh off the plane has been initially puzzled at the sight of so many people walking around with a thermos tucked under one arm, sucking on a metal pipe stuck into a gourd with a silver rim. ¡Qué raro!
Well you don’t have to be puzzled any longer. Echemos un vistazo (let’s take a quick look) at this dearly beloved drink.
Five fast mate facts
1. ‘Mate’ is the name for both the beverage and the cup it is drunk from (but we’ll keep calling it a ‘mate cup’ for clarity), while ‘yerba mate’ is the name for the plant that the beverage is made from;
2. Native South American people were drinking mate long before the arrival of the Spanish, but the settlers quickly caught on, and it’s now the national drink of Argentina and also very popular in Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil;
3. Argentina is the world’s biggest producer and also the world’s biggest exporter of mate, but domestic demand is so great that only 10-15% of what is produced is available for export;
4. Mate has a grassy, earthy, astringent taste that’s a bit like green tea…and not to everyone’s liking (if that includes you, try adding a little honey), and
5. Mate contains ‘mateine,’ which may or may not be just another name for caffeine , but in any case studies show that drinking mate relaxes the muscles while simultaneously stimulating the heart.
The essentials of drinking mate
To drink mate you need four things: yerba mate; a mate cup; a bombilla, and hot water. Yerba mate is what mate is made from. To prepare it, smaller branches are cut from the yerba mate plant trees and then toasted, dried, packaged and aged for between 6 to 18 months. It can be bought juuust about anywhere in Argentina, from the smallest chino (local supermarket) to the largest Jumbo or Coto, and you normally have the choice of many different sizes of bags. The traditional (and still most popular) mate cups are from a calabash vine gourd. However, wood, metal and even cow horn cups are also used. Some people say that one type is better than another, but it really just comes down to personal preference.
A bombilla is a metal straw. It has fine holes on one end so that you don’t get a mouthful of yerba mate particles when you suck on it (this is also a matter of technique – see below). The other end has a gold-colored spout which stays cool enough to touch with your lips.
As for the hot water, that comes from a kettle just like everywhere else! However note that the water must be at a temperature of 70 to 80°, never boiling or the mate will be bitter. It’s not uncommon to find free hot water machines for mate in Argentina in places like service stations and university campuses.
How to make mate
Mate is prepared by filling a mate cup with yerba mate, adding hot water, and drinking the infused water through the bombilla. That’s the process, but what this leaves out is the social ritual that goes along with drinking mate in the company of others.
When drunk in company, one person (the cebador) is in charge of preparing the mate. They make a cupful and take the first drink, as it’s during the first cupful when tiny particles of yerba mate are most likely to pass through the holes on the bombilla and end up in the drinker’s mouth. When they finish they refill the cup with water and pass it to the person next to them person, who drinks the entire cup before handing it back. The cebador refills the cup with water and passes it to the next person, and so on. It normally takes about ten refills before the yerba mate needs to be replaced.
Mate really is an obsession in Argentina. According to one study, 92% of households consume it – that’s pretty much everyone. Make no mistake, if you really want to integrate in Argentina, drinking mate and knowing the customs that surround it are a must. And hey, it’s a lot cheaper than Starbucks!
Next Step: If you are living in the US, it might be hard to find some Mate. Don´t worry, you can always order it off the internet from a place like Teavana.