Mate in Argentina and Uruguay is not a drink: it’s a religion. The bitter infusion takes on the role that beer plays in many other western countries. A daily habit, but also a social role, a role of binding and acceptance. We can’t understand Argentina and Uruguay without understanding the importance of the mate drink in those societies. You don’t really grasp it until you see people sipping it in the park, in a classroom, at work, in the police station…
When I was a student in Mendoza, nothing surprised me as much as seeing my fellow classmates sipping and passing around their strange cup in the classroom. Firstly, because where I come from no one would dare bring their coffee mug to the university. And also because sharing a drink (and a straw!) isn’t so socially accepted. I still had to learn what yerba mate tea is, its benefits and the effects of its caffeine.
But Anna and I literally fell in love! When a group of people gathers in Argentina or in Uruguay, they always whip out their mate set. Whatever their age or their social background, whatever the reason they meet up. They will systematically have a cup, a bag of chopped leaves, a metal straw and a thermos of hot water.
There are a few differences in the way mate is enjoyed in Argentina, Uruguay, and also in Paraguay. We will see about those as well.
In the Andean countries (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador), mate simply means ‘tea’, as in “mate de coca, de hierbabuena, de muña etc.“
¿Me convidas un mate?
During the week we spent in Montevideo, Uruguay, we were hosted by three guys living together in a shared flat. There was much music and pot smoking going on around us, we can tell you; but we abstained.
One of those guys, Alexis, was an expert mate-maker, and the one who usually prepared it in the group. He was a fount of knowledge in the art of yerba mate and has taught us everything about the benefits of this tea.
One of the first things he taught us was this question: ¿me convidas un mate? It translates as: “Do you invite me to a mate?”. It can be used when you want to join someone you see pouring a mate.
Imagine asking someone on the subway train to share their Coke and let you suck on their straw. Their reaction would be quite a sight to behold. But with mate, it’s accepted. So tea-drinking freeloaders, your time has come; learn that question and Uruguay will be your paradise!
So what is yerba mate, actually?
Mate (pronounce mah-tey) is an infusion of yerba mate tea leaves, a caffeine rich plant that grows in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay and has several benefits.
You stuff those chopped leaves up to the brim of a special cup called mate; then cover them with hot water; and suck that water through a metal straw called bombilla (pronounce “bombisha” if you want to sound local).
It’s consumed also in Paraguay in an ice cold version called tereré, in Southern Chile and in Southern Brazil. Strangely enough, Syrians and Lebanese are also very fond of it and are big importers of Argentine mate. But they don’t beat the Uruguayans and Argentinians.
In Uruguay it’s almost hysterical. A life essential, a sign of simply existing. Uruguayans drink it absolutely all the time except maybe when they’re asleep. So it’s very common to see passers-by on the street clamping onto their mate and hot water bottle. Argentinians are more relaxed about it; they “only” drink mate at home, at work and in the park.
With this level of consumption these countries are one of the biggest tea consumers in the world – leaving the UK and other famous tea drinking nations well behind.
We do know mate in Berlin: it’s a safe choice in the tea house; it helps keeping us awake as caffeine-charged Club Mate; or launches us into party mood as the explosive vodka-mate (if you haven’t tried, we recommend!).
The art of mate
To make that art happen, you will need these elements:
|Yerba||The biggest cultivators of yerba mate are Brazil and Argentina; unsurprisingly Uruguay and Argentina are the biggest markets. There are several types of yerba available ranging from the more bitter to the milder ones. You also find some with flavours. Supermarkets always have a whole wall lined with yerba.|
|Mate||It’s common among foreigners to wrongly refer to the leaves as mate, whereas it’s really the name of the cup. You can find different sizes and shapes. It’s made of a hollow calabash (read: “pumpkin”!) covered with various stuff, eg. animal skin, rubber, plastic, wood. Some mates are really elaborate and artsy.|
|Bombilla||Made of metal with a little sieve at the end to keep the yerba out. There are various types eg. with replaceable sieve. You can also find some made of bamboo.|
Several people we met pimp up their yerba mate by adding for example mint, cinnamon sticks, or citric skins. You can either leave them in the bag, or drop them in the mate for a single session. I personally like adding orange flavour to my yerba mate drink, to lessen the bitterness of the caffeine.
We read about a guy in Uruguay who realised it would make sense to cultivate yerba in his country too. He researched the whole land looking for the necessary conditions. He did find some places where yerba was being grown but production hasn’t really developed yet. We’ve seen only a few packs of Uruguayan mate in shops. And yet, imagine how much the country would save by producing its own yerba mate!
How to make the best mate
Here’s the ultimate method to create the perfect mate artwork, as explained by Alexis and several others after him:
- Place the bombilla into the gourd (mate).
- Fill your mate with yerba almost until full and make a little decline in it where the bombilla is.
- Pour hot water there (don’t boil the water, take it off before boiling. It should be around 70-80 Celsius). Watch out that it doesn’t wet the top of the yerba mound, only the bottom part of it. Wait a bit.
- The 1st water is drunk (= absorbed) by the mate so pour another dose. Keep the top dry all the time, otherwise the taste will be washed off. Basically, you keep the top of the yerba mate for later, when more taste is needed.
- Sip the tea through the bombilla. Warning: it’s hot!
- Be careful that your bombilla is not moving because it might “wash the mate” (remove its taste too fast).
- Sip the tea until the water is gone.
- Fill the mate again with water and pass it to the next person in the circle.
It’s actually always the same person (called cebador/a) pouring the water and passing around in the group. It should be drunk very hot and those who add sugar get rigorously laughed at. If it’s too bitter for you (and it is very bitter), the cebador/a will add sugar at your turn, before pouring water.
Ah, for the record, milk is a no-go.
Risks and benefits of yerba mate tea
Caffeine, pros and cons
Caffeine –whether it’s in coffee, tea or herbal teas like yerba mate– induces both risks and benefits. It can boost energy and improve mental focus, reducing fatigue and improving both physical and mental performance.
At the same time, it’s known to raise blood pressure and increase the risks of heart attacks, among other dangers. One rule of thumb in every case is to give your body enough time to get used to it, and not to overindulge to avoid risks of addiction.
Yerba mate contains less caffeine than coffee though, but more than a cup of tea. Several people we met in Uruguay and Argentina said drinking mate helped them focus, without the jittery effects of coffee.
There are benefits to drinking hot water
In general, drinking water is good for you. But drinking warm water is even better for your body. Not scalding though; just warm.
Among its various effects, we can name a better body hydration, a better digestion, a better blood circulation, a general calming, etc. It also helps in fighting fevers, colds and constipation. More details on Medical News.
So yerba mate, like your usual herbal tea, has all these benefits (except maybe the calming, considering its caffeine content).
But also risks from drinking too hot water
Some studies claim that drinking a large amount of very hot tea over a long period may increase the risks of some cancers, especially in the lungs, oesophagus and the mouth.
Our scientific knowledge is too restricted to explain it or discuss it. So we’ll just leave it here as a potential warning.
It’s good for your body
It’s not surprising that yerba mate is found nowadays in about every drugstore in the Western part of the world. People don’t call it a “super-food” but it’s rich in antioxidants and full of most of the nutrients your body needs.
It contains no less than 7 different vitamins, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, sulfur and zinc. Quite an impressive list, huh?
It sort of reduces appetite and is good for losing weight
I don’t know about you but warm water always soothes me when I’m just a little hungry. There are evenings when I feel hungry shortly before going to bed; to avoid eating, I prepare myself a large cup of herbal tea.
Yerba mate goes one step further. A study has shown that taking ground yerba mate leaves before an exercise of moderate intensity burns 24% more fat. So drinking mate is really a 2 in 1 when it comes to ways of losing weight!
It generates less waste than a usual takeaway drink
Some people need their daily takeaway coffee, using up 16 billion disposable coffee cups each year. These are by no means recyclable, so that’s 16 billion cups that either get in the landfill or at sea. Every single year.
Whether we agree with the benefits of yerba mate tea or not, one thing for sure is that with a re-usable natural cup and a metal straw, the only waste that is created is from the packaging. But that doesn’t mean you should swap your favourite morning drink. All you need is to bring everywhere your own cup, made of non-toxic materials.
The difficulty here is not to find a cup, but to get the mental routine of taking it always with you, whether on your travels or in your daily life.
Cultural differences between Uruguay and Argentina mate-wise
As we said, Uruguayans are more obsessed with drinking mate at all times than their Argentinian cousins. The latter have a joke about them. They say that if you see a person drinking mate and clenching to their thermos while walking on the street, that’s a Uruguayan. Imagine carrying all that stuff with you just to go anywhere. But true enough, that’s exactly what we saw in Montevideo.
Read more: The best things to do in Montevideo
Another big difference is that some Argentinians drink their mate sweet. For Uruguayans, that is an absolute disgrace.
And in other countries then?
We heard that Paraguayans are heavy mate drinkers too, but they enjoy it ice-cold and call it tereré. This tradition is shared with the Northwest of Argentina, where the weather is too hot to enjoy a warm drink all day long.
Mate is also drunk in the region of Chaco, in Bolivia. We didn’t visit that area so we cannot testify. What we did see in Bolivia was a fair amount of coca chewing.
Making the most: the annual mate festival in Argentina
Of course, a nation that is so much into mate needs to organise a mate festival! Matear takes place over a weekend in November every year and gathers producers and mate experts from all over Argentina. We were lucky to be in Buenos Aires at the right time to attend this free (somebody said ‘free’?!) event.
It’s surprising to see how many inventions are out there around this very traditional custom. We encountered variations of yerba that we wouldn’t have imagined: organic, improved with vitamins, with added fruit flavours. Even more, we learnt about interesting recipes including yerba mate, for example cocktails and puddings. We even got free samples to try!
So I decided to get a mate and a bombilla at some point to enjoy mate at home.
Discover where Anna bought her precious mate…
Game: Spot the Mate!
Here’s a little game to show you how important mate is in the Argentinian culture. Can you see the mate (cup) with bombilla on all these paintings and photographs? Leave us a comment if you do!
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Did you know what yerba mate tea was and how much caffeine it contained? What do you think about a drink that is passed around in a group? Give us your opinion in the comments!
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