Have you been wondering what is it that all Argentines are drinking at every hour of the day; in the park, the office, at their homes? That, ladies and gentlemen, is known as mate (pronounced ma·te). Looking at it closely, drinking mate is simply slurping hot water through dried leaves, using a metal or wooden straw. It is highly suggested that, in your time in Argentina, you try mate. Drinking mate comes with a disclaimer though: it is what is referred to as ‘an acquired taste’. Its semi-bitter, grassy and smoky flavor might be a little off-putting at first, but give it enough tries and you will be hooked. Starting to drink mate is like starting to smoke, at first you will do it because it is a social thing and before you know it you will be the proud owner of the mate kit (equipo de mate) and you will, at any cost, slurp on that fantastic herb.
Understanding what Mate is might be a little confusing at first, so bear with me. Firstly, the activity is called drinking mate. Secondly, the herb you ingest is called yerba mate. And finally the hollowed-out dried up pumpkin which acts a cup for the yerba mate is called the mate. So to recap the mate is the hollowed out dried pumpkin where you place the tea, the yerba mate, and the process of ingesting this is referred to as dinking mate, understood? Great! Let’s move on, the metal straw from which you slurp the yerba is called the bombilla (watch out, the double L is pronounced as ‘sh’). You also have your regular thermos to transport hot water and be ready to drink mate at any place and time. And lastly you have your leather bag where people keep their mate equipment which fits the yerba, the mate, the thermos and some sugar if you like your mate to be sweeter.
There are also two things that you have to know about mate. The first is that it has similar effects to green tea so it acts as a great digestive agent and a hydrant. The second and maybe the most alluring effect of mate is that it contains ‘mateine’ which has the same effect as caffeine, it wakes you up, yet what ‘matiene’ does differently is that it relaxes your muscles while simultaneously stimulating your heart. All in all it is a great drink!
Mate Tradition in Argentina
Mate is just about everywhere in Argentina and the people drink it religiously. Mate is a drink for every scenario and many people drink it alone if they are working, reading or studying, however, mate is seen more as a group and sharing activity. You see people passing on the mate around in class or at work with a face of satisfaction every time their turn approaches. Now we return to definitions. The person who brings the mate and prepares it is referred to as the cebador. He or she is the person that will prepare the mate and drink the first cupful as it is in this first try that most of the small particles of the yerba will go through the straw (bombilla). When the cebador finishes he or she will refill the cup and pass it on to the next person. It is very important to respect the original order, as it is seen as selfish and rude to drink the mate out of turn. Every time a person is done the cup will come back to the cebador so that he or she can refill it and pass to the person who’s turn it is and this goes on until the yerba has to be replaced or everyone is satisfied.
Fore more information on the origins of mate, I suggest our article on Guarani culture.
Where to acquire your Equipo de Mate?
It is very easy to acquire an initial mate starter kit; you will see a lot of shops selling bombillas, mates and the bags around Buenos Aires. You will also find a great range of yerba brands, such as Union and Merced, in any supermarket you encounter in the tea and coffee aisle. I suggest you purchase your mate equipment in one of the local artisanal markets in San Telmo (every Sunday) or in Recoleta (Saturdays and Sundays) where you will find mates of every shape and size made out of wood, pumpkin or even cow horns and their respective bombillas made out of different metals or woods. You will also find spectacular leather bags to transport your equipment around town as any Argentine would. So slurp away and enjoy!
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