Since my first adventure to South America many moons ago, I have been intrigued by this mysterious herbal beverage that is sipped through a metal straw. Frequently consumed and shared in parks, on buses, trains, and even on horseback by gauchos, Porteño hipsters, bus drivers, families, and groups of friends alike. What is this substance? The only thing that is shared like that in Vancouver isn’t a beverage. Yerba mate is more popular than coffee yet not found on any menu. It took a couple more visits to South America until I got a taste of yerba mate culture and was invited into a mate circle. I’ve been hooked on the green stuff ever since.
What the heck is yerba mate (yer-bah mah-tay)? Perhaps one of the most incredibly nutritious, invigorating drinks ever. It packs the same amount of punch as coffee (without the jitters), has the health benefits of tea, and the nourishing euphoria of chocolate. The leaves of the rainforest mate tree (holly family) naturally contain plenty of caffeine, heaps of vitamins and minerals, amino acids plus a plethora of antioxidants. It is widely consumed in South America, particularly in the southern parts of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Originally harvested by the Guarani people in the sub-tropical forests around Iguazu Falls, people have been drinking this unique beverage for centuries. Yerba mate culture is so ingrained in some societies of South America, particularly in Patagonia, that I’m convinced babies come right out of the womb sipping the earthy tasting beverage.
Yerba mate drinkers are easily spotted carrying their thermoses and mate paraphernalia everywhere they go. The infusion is called mate and is prepared by steeping dry leaves of the mate plant in hot water in a hollow gourd (also referred to as mate) then is sipped through a metal straw-filter called a bombilla. Sound complicated? It is. There is definitely an art behind the preparation.
Yerba Mate Ceremony
Tomando mate (drinking mate) is a symbol of hospitality. High-five yourself if you are offered to drink mate with locals as it is quite a privilege to take part in the ceremony. The first step of the ceremony is the preparation of the gourd where typically the cebador/a (mate server) prepares mate for friends. Filling the gourd 2/3 full of yerba mate, then gently shaking it until yerba mate is on one side and inserting the filtered end of the bombilla into the bottom of the gourd before carefully pouring water in. The mate server tests the mate by drinking the first gourd-full or two to ensure that only a smooth running mate is shared. Then the gourd is refilled with hot water (not boiling) and passed counter-clockwise with the bombilla facing the recipient. Don’t touch the bombilla…seriously just don’t. It is tempting but it messes everything up and is a surefire way to not be invited to drink mate again. Each person drinks the entire gourd, taking as much time as necessary until all liquid is gone before passing the gourd back to the cebador/a. The gourd is refilled with hot water and follows around the circle, continuing in this fashion until the mate is lavado (flat). When you have had enough mate, simply say gracias indicating that you’re are done as the gourd can be passed around 15-20 times before making a new infusion.
With all of the health benefits and stimulating effects, why doesn’t the whole world drink yerba mate? Probably because tastes like earth. Seriously…it does. I love it but it is definitely an acquired taste. It is similar in flavour to a very strong green tea with hints of dirt and grass. Most friends that I have invited to drink mate only tried it once then called it quits. You can buy flavoured mate that is less bitter as it is infused with mint or honey but I am a purest. I like the earthy taste.
Last spring I was in Patagonia sipping on mate staring at spectacular glaciers when a group of Argentinians approached me. They were in disbelief, as rare as a unicorn, a foreigner that actually enjoys mate. With big smiles and open arms they showered me in hugs and kisses, taking photos as proof of this bizarre phenomenon as I offered to share my mate with them. Breaking down barriers with an earthy beverage.
Why drink yerba mate?
- The mate gourds and thermoses make excellent accessories available in a wide array of colours, shapes and sizes
- Guachos drink heaps of mate and they are cool
- It is a good conversation starter as it is so mysterious
- It packs a serious punch – coffee high without the coffee crash
- Argentinians are beautiful…the yerba mate can’t hurt
- It is incredibly good for you and tastes healthy (and a touch earthy)
- It is a very social drink (though I am still trying to find friends in Vancouver to drink it with)
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