Argentina’s national drink, mate (pronounced mah-tay), has “the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate”, yet it’s a drink which is not exactly adored by everyone. Distinctive and slightly bitter, mate is an acquired taste which, after drinking, you may not want to acquire at all.
Mate does, however, play an important role in Argentine culture. Its use by the Guaraní natives was first noted in 1592 and tribal sorcerers called caraí payé used to drink it to get in touch with the Devil – it was regarded as a magic drug. The Jesuits who later settled in the Argentine provinces of Misiones and northern Corrientes cultivated the yerba mate plant and were responsible for spreading and promoting its use.
Mate is also a mark of cultural identity and is meant to be shared among family and friends. The experience of drinking it brings people together and many of the rituals of its preparation and consumption remain unchanged over centuries.
Here’s how you can get started:
- Anyone can prepare and serve mate but a mate cebador is someone who will carry out these tasks to perfection. Badly prepared mate is almost an insult so feel free to draw on the experience of a cebador.
- Traditionalists believe mate should only be served in a dried calabash gourd shell but you can also use vessels made from wood, ceramic, or metal.
- Fill your mate gourd with dried yerba mate leaves up to 2/3 of its capacity, cover the top with the palm of your hand, turn it upside down, and gently shake to bring the powdered yerba to the surface. Slowly turn the gourd to its normal position so that the yerba accumulates on one side.
- Pour warm water on the emptier part of the gourd and let the yerba absorb the water. Repeat with slightly hotter water.
- Insert the bombilla (filtered metal straw) on the emptier side of the gourd and slowly refill it with hot water after each serving, gradually watering down the dry yerba.
- The mate gourd is traditionally passed in a circle to the person on your right. Each person drinks until the gourd is empty and the cebador refills it with hot water before passing it to the next person.
In days gone by there was even a common mate ‘language’ used to transmit messages. When served with cinnamon it meant “I’m interested in you”, with coffee “I was angry but I forgive you”, with molasses “Your sadness makes me feel blue”, and extremely hot mate meant “I’m waiting for you to talk to me. This is how my love for you is.”
Whatever the intended message, mate is so well and truly weaved into the fabric of Argentine culture that you can’t make a trip to the country and leave without trying it.