Let’s Talk About Mate

Mate is extremely popular in Argentina (or maybe South America in general. Argentina is the only South American country I visited, but I’m told that they drink it in other countries, too). I didn’t like it the first time I tried it, but after about three months of being drenched in the mate-consuming culture, I found myself addicted.

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I was afraid they would take it away at customs when I came back home, but I had no problems. Now I wish I had brought the full kilo with me.

Yerba mate (pronounced /ZHERbah MAHteh/ in Argentine Spanish) is similar to tea. It has a bitter, minty taste that can be compared to green tea, but they normally don’t drink it like tea. Traditionally it’s prepared in a dried, hollowed out gourd (also called a mate), but there are wooden, ceramic, and glass ones as well. They take this hollowed out gourd-shaped container and fill it about two-thirds full with dry mate leaves. Sugar or lemon rind can be added, but most Argentines drink it bitter.

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The three mates I brought back from Argentina. The left one is glass, the middle one is ceramic, and the right one is a painted gourd.

A metal straw with a filter at the bottom end, called a bombilla (pronounced /bohmBEEshah/), is stuck into the gourd and hot water is poured in.

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Three different bombillas. The spring filter on the right is my favorite.

Sharing mate is a huge part of Argentine culture.  They drink coffee and tea, but mate is more common. The Argentines seem to be very proud of their mate; whenever someone realized that I was a foreigner, one of the first questions they would ask was, “Ya has probado el mate?” (Have you already tried mate?) Before the onset of my addiction, I would answer, “Sí, pero no me gusta mucho” (Yes, but I don’t really like it), and their eyes would twinkle as they said some variation of, “Oh, you will.”

I had no idea how right they were.

People in Argentina meet for mate the same way we meet for coffee. In a group setting, someone fills the mate and drinks all the water, then fills it again and passes it on. Even if the gourd is large, it’s crammed full of mate leaves, so there’s only room for a few mouthfuls water. Because of this, the taste is VERY strong. The first time I tried it, I think my face puckered up from how bitter it was and my friends all laughed at me. When they asked me if I liked it, I told them that it felt like I had fallen on my face in a field and gotten a mouth full of wet grass.

The Argentines were greatly amused by this.

The mate is passed to everyone in the group until the flavor in the leaves is gone or the water runs out. I had a REALLY hard time with this because everyone drinks from the same straw. When I first saw someone put their mouth on that straw and then offer it to me, my first reaction was something along the lines of, “Eww. Don’t I get my own?” With my germophobic American upbringing, I spent much of my first month there being extremely grossed out at how nonchalantly the South Americans will put things in their mouths. Seriously. If a deadly super virus were to be unleashed on the world, South America would probably be wiped out first, but the survivors would be the first ones to develop immunity.

It took a few months for me to get used to it. I pretty much had the germophobia beaten out of me during my four months there. It wasn’t a choice. I had to either accept it or go insane. Now that I’m back in the States, I think other Americans are grossed out by how nonchalant am about sharing food and germs.

It’s funny how things work out.

Anyways, there is an art to preparing the mate. The way I was taught, you have to cover the top of the mate with your palm, turn it upside down, and shake it so the leaves fall against your palm. When you hold it upright, there will be a fine green powder stuck to your palm. You blow or wipe it off your palm and repeat the process until there’s no more power. This powder is just pulverized bits of mate leaf, but you want to get as much out as possible because it will clog the filter once water is added. Doing this also helps the smaller leaves fall toward the top of the mate, so the larger leaves settle at the bottom and help filter out the smaller leaves.

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If you do this in public in the US, people will think you’re weird. If you’re preparing a mate and you find that someone is staring at you, my advice is to whisper, “…just a liiiiittle bit of pixie dust,” blow the mate powder on them, and then exclaim, “He can fly! He can fly!”

Removing the powder in this way will also cause the leaves inside to fall into a slope. This is good! You don’t want all of the leaves to lay flat inside the mate, for reasons I’ll explain in a sec.

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Once you have your lopsided pile o’ mate leaves, now it’s time to insert the bombilla. You hold it in your fist like you’re about to stab the mate with a dagger, filter down, and cover the mouth end with your thumb. According to my teacher, if you don’t cover the end when you insert the straw, stray bits of leaf and powder will fill up the bottom of the straw, because science. If this happens it will be very unpleasant once you start drinking because the filter will get clogged, which means you’ll have to suck harder to get the water out, and then you’ll have clumps of soggy mate leaves shooting you in the throat.

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When you insert the bombilla, you insert it at about a ninety degree angle to the slope of the mound of leaves. This means if the top of the mound is on your left, you will insert the bombilla from the right side and the filter will be pointing to the bottom of the left side of the mound.

Was that math? That sounded like math. I’m so sorry. I have a liberal arts degree. Don’t believe anything I say when it comes to math. If that sounded legit, it was probably an accident.

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Here’s a picture, in case my made up math words confused you.

Once the filter touches the bottom of the mate, DON’T move the straw. My teacher was very adamant about this. If you move the straw after it’s in place, the movement will both push chunks of mate into the straw and bring your tiny mate mountain tumbling down. The reason you want the mate in a slope is this: you’re not going to wet all the leaves at once. When you pour the water in, you aim the stream at the low end of the mound. My teacher said it’s best to pour the water slowly onto the bombilla, not the leaves, so that the water will trickle down the straw and the topmost leaves won’t get wet.

I almost overfilled it while trying to take the picture, but you can see that the water is falling on the bombilla and the top part of the leaves is still dry.

I almost overfilled it while trying to take the picture, but you can see that the water is falling on the bombilla and the top part of the leaves is still dry.

DON’T completely fill the mate with water. If you wet all the leaves at once, all of the flavor will steep out in the first few fillings. This will make the first few mouthfuls really strong, and then the leaves will lose their taste much quicker. There should always be a dry part of the mound sticking up out of the water. As the mate weakens, you can pour the water onto the drier part of the mound.

Americans seem to have a hard time grasping the concept of not moving the bombilla. It seems like we instinctively want to grab the straw and guide it to our mouths when presented with a beverage, which is ok for drinking out of a cup, but mate drinkers will yell at you for ruining their mate.

Mate does have caffeine, but I’ve found that it’s gentler than what you’d get from coffee or soda. The energy builds up gradually, and it takes longer to dissipate. I’m really sensitive to caffeine, so this is both good and bad for me. On the one hand, the caffeine doesn’t hit me as hard, which is good. On the other hand, the caffeine takes longer to go away, which, if I feel like sleeping that night, is bad.

I’m so glad I gave mate a chance while I was in Argentina, because it’s an amazing part of the culture that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. I’ve never come across anything quite like it in the United States. There were times when complete strangers offered me mate just because I happened to be standing nearby, and when I accepted it was like we were instant friends. Most Argentines seem to be delighted at the chance to get to know someone while sharing a mate. I admit, the idea of a group of strangers all drinking out of the same straw still grosses me out a tiny bit, but when a total stranger is completely willing to take a moment and share something of theirs with you, it creates such a warm feeling of friendship and acceptance that more than makes up for having to drink out of the same straw.

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