A bitter, envigorating beverage that clears your mind, a herbal remedy and a symbol of friendship and understanding – mate has been a part of South American culture and tradition for nearly 400 years. It was first introduced to the Spanish colonists by Guarani Indians and has been cultivated and popularized since. Today, it is the traditional drink of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, but it is also common practice to drink mate in Brazil and Chile.
Mate is prepared from leaves and stems of the yerba maté tree, that have been dried and crushed into very small pieces. The yerba maté trees typically grow in the tropical rainforests of South America and their leaves are evergreen. After the trees are harvested, the leaves are roasted and aged for a few months. This process produces the yerba – the basis of mate.
To prepare mate the traditional and perhaps the most convenient way, you will need a gourd with a metal straw called the bombilla. The gourd is also called a mate and can be made of wood or stainless steel, sometimes with decoration and ornaments made of other materials. The bombilla works both as a straw and sieve – is has one closed end with small holes that let the liquid though, but stop the yerba in the gourd. You fill the about 2/3 of the gourd with yerba and cover the opening of the gourd with your palm. You turn it upside-down and shake it to make sure that the small particles of the yerba end up close to the opening. This will prevent the smaller particles from entering the straw while you drink, while the large particles additionally block them from coming near the holes. You tilt the gourd sideways to form a yerba ‘mountain’ and now you are ready to pour water into the space opposite of the mountain. The water should be hot, but never boiling – 60 – 80ºC is good for mate, because you do not want the first infusion to be very bitter and the later ones watered out. A lower temperature helps to distribute the flavor over many infusions. This is a general way to prepare mate, there is however a more detailed and careful way of doing it.
There are many reasons to drink mate. Although it is referred to as a herbal drink, it does contain caffeine and can be a great substitute for coffee or regular tea. It also effects the body in a similar way to green tea – it can prevent vitamin deficiencies, detoxify blood, lower cholesterol and improve digestion. It is known to contain antioxidants as well as minerals and vitamins.
On the streets of many South Amarican countries it is very common to see people socializing and drinking mate together, bringing their mate kits to the parks. In such social settings, mate is drunk in a ceremonial way, where one gourd is passed from one person to another. The cebador, who is the server of mate, prepares the beverage and drinks the first steeping which is considered bad, because it is rather strong and bitter. He does it out of politeness, in order to not offend other participants. He then refills the gourd with water and passes it to the next person. When the straw makes a sucking noise it means the person has finished drinking, gives the gourd back to the cebador, who refills it again and so on. Mate is so popular in South America that they even serve it at McDonalds often instead of coffee.
It is very easy to get confused with all the names referring to this wonderful drink, so I will clarify that mate is the name of the beverage drunk in South America, but it is also the name of the gourd it is drank it. Yerba mate on the other hand is the plant and after its leaves are processed, the dry herb mixture is simply referred to as yerba. Today you can buy plain yerba, but also flavored, most often with mint, orange or lemon. Some of the better known brands are Nativa, La Cachuera and Amanda. It is even sold in tea-bags under names “Cruz de Malta” in Argentina or “Mate Leão” in Brazil. Mate is an acquired taste and a lot of people do not like it when trying it for the first time. It is easy to get used to and start enjoying the flavor when drinking it with friends and family. Nevertheless, it is a great was to pass time and share this beverage with others once you have learned to enjoy it.