February 3, 2008
No one could accurately write anything about Argentina’s culinary traditions without writing about Yerba Mate, (jer-bah máh-tay) the national drink. Mate is an important part of the culture in Argentina and other South American countries. (In Argentina, it’s drunk by everyone, most famously by Gauchos, those Argentinean cowboys, like this one, above.)
Mate can be drunk any time of day, but the most important part of the tradition is that it’s drunk communally. A group of people will drink the infusion from the same mate (cup) and shared filter straw (something many Americans bristle at, since we are taught from a young age to avoid sharing cooties with anyone). People also drink mate by themselves-it’s common to see students studying with a mate at their side.
A typical Sunday afternoon activity is to get together with friends, drink mate and eat pastries, often at a park or other scenic place. Mate is such a big part of life there that people take it with them almost anyplace they go, have elaborate carrying cases for it, and drink it anywhere and everywhere. Where there are people, there is mate.
Yerba Mate is an infusion made from the leaves of a tree that’s in the same family as holly. It has a flavor comparable to some varieties of green tea. Yerba Mate has a variety of health benefits, also like green tea, it’s filled with anti-oxidants and cancer-fighting properties, and its known for the energy boost it gives. (it is slightly caffeinated.) There are as many brands and varieties of mate as there are people that drink it. Mate can be in tea bag (drunk like a regular cup of tea) or in loose form (the type that’s drunk socially.) It can be made with just yerba leaves, though some brands include more twigs in the mix, which changes the flavor. Mate also comes infused with flavors like mint, orange or lemon; the way it’s infused with these flavors is by adding dried herbs or dried fruit rind. Fresh hot water can be added to the mate several times before fresh yerba needs to be added without a significant change in the flavor. The most common mate is toasted-this reduces the bitterness of the yerba, and it’s called mate cocido. The yerba leaves are dried, toasted, and crushed; then aged for a few months to enhance the flavor.
Mate is prepared by steeping the yerba leaves in hot water. It’s important to note that the water is not boiling, rather almost to the boiling point, unlike tea. This is done for two reasons-boiling water will burn the mate leaves (therefore making the flavor of the yerba too bitter), and it will also burn your mouth.
I’d like to note that drinking yerba mate is an acquired taste. Most Argentineans find it quite funny to watch a foreigner try mate for the first time. It has a very strong, grassy, herbal flavor that takes some getting used to. Native Argentineans drink it from a very young age, we have a photo of my husband at about age 2 drinking it, so they don’t have the same reaction to the flavor. If any of you try or have tried mate, I’d like to know your impressions, please feel welcome to leave a comment.
I made a video demonstrating how to make Mate and telling a bit about the mate tradition. I was amazed at how hard it was to get a decent video in one shot-it took me about a hundred times, most of which ended up with me laughing and/or swearing as I flubbed the ‘lines’ my husband and I wrote to do the demo. Anyway, if you don’t learn how to make Mate, at least you can have a good laugh! I have a new appreciation for actors who make being in front of a camera seem natural. And editors, who make the unnatural parts disappear. Mine is totally unedited , as you will clearly be able to see if you watch it. There are some awkward moments, but it’s not too bad for the first time I’ve ever made a video, and it was a lot of fun.
Credits: I’d also like to add a couple of credits before I give you the ‘recipe’ for Yerba Mate. First, to my husband for being my very, very patient cameraman. Thanks! Some of the information I found on Yerba Mate came from Wikipedia, whose pages on the subject were thorough and interesting. Finally, the opening photo of ‘El Gaucho Loco’ I found by doing a search for ‘Yerba Mate’ on Google Images. It links to someone’s page that’s under construction about their family history in Argentina. I wanted to credit the person, but then the link ended up being invalid and linking to a university page. However, I think the image is from an old postcard. So even though I can’t truly credit the right person, I love this kooky guy.
How to Prepare Mate
To prepare Mate, you will need:
A Mate-a hollowed out gourd, or cup (you could also use a cup)
Hot water-between 160-180 degrees Fahrenheit
Fill the Mate with Yerba about 2/3rds of the way full. Add sugar to taste. Insert bombilla and then pour hot water in a circular motion until the Mate cup is full. Sip through the bombilla. Fresh water may be added several times. Once you have finished drinking the mate, refill and pass to your neighbor. Enjoy with a selection of pastries. Another note: Loose yerba can be found in many Latin markets, gourmet groceries (Like Whole Foods, who sells an outrageously expensive Mate kit and also some varieties in tea bags) and online at shops like this one and this one.