February 3, 2008

Yerba Mate Argentina’s National Drink

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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:

Yerba

Sugar

A Mate-a hollowed out gourd, or cup (you could also use a cup)

A Bombilla

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.

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3 Responses to “Yerba Mate Argentina’s National Drink”

  1. I had to drink mate when I lived in Chile. I was in a ruka, a Mapuche grass house, basically, with a fire going on the dirt floor and nowhere for the smoke to exit (apparently, chimneys are not part of Mapuche technology). There were about a dozen of us — Mapuche women and me, the gringa — sitting around the fire. They made mate and started passing it around, adding more hot water and sugar to the container after each woman drank.
    They handed it to me and I thought, this is so gross! I do not want to drink from the same bombilla that everyone else has used! Not only that, but I don’t like tea.
    But it was one of those awful “They are doing to define all Americans by what I do in the next ten seconds” moments, so I was stuck.
    It was nasty.
    I tried to avoid mate situations after that.
    I did notice, when I traveled to Paraguay, that everyone always had mate (way more than in Chile), including carrying a little thermos with them.

  2. I found your blog from the Yerba Mate video on YouTube; it’s nice. Learning a new culture as an adult is completely different from learning it as a child of that culture, and wonderfully rewarding in its own way. (Over the past decade, I’ve been spending a quarter or a third of each year in SW France – no, not Provence; that’s the South East!) We see things that are invisible to the people who live there, until they see them anew through our eyes. I love traveling in the US with our French friends for just that reason; I see unconsciously-known things from a completely different perspective when I’m with them.
    At any rate, just to share back a bit of foodie information you may be interested in, let me tell you a bit about water temperature for making tea. (Pretty exciting, eh?) This business of “a full rolling boil” is a British thing, and they are relatively late to come to tea. (The legend is that they hired some North Indians to steal seeds from the Chinese.) The boiling water routine is a function of the English/Indian style of mixing milk with already boiled tea leaves, and (perhaps) a horror of Indian germs.
    The Chinese tea tradition is much, much longer, and there is no use of boiling water. In fact, as far as Chinese tea traditions go, the Brits have gotten it horribly wrong. Water temperatures vary, from a high or 180F for fully fermented (or oxidized, which is the more modern and more correct term) black tea, like Pu Erh, down to 140F or so for fresh crop green teas. In fact, for a first-quality current harvest prizewinning green Long Jing (or Ching; crude transliterations of the tea which is translated as “Dragon Well”), some fanatical fussbudgets will drop the temperature down even as far as 120F, which is about as hot as a good water heater delivers water. Spring water, or collected rain water from the unpolluted mountains, of course, although a Brita filter is as much as most of us can manage, even if we’re a little nuts on tea.
    Chinese steeping times are much more like those used with yerba mate, also, especially with green tea. Basically, pour it on, and pour it out, without letting the tea leaves sitting in water after the steeping has been done. Common times are a minute for the first steeping, and add another 15 or 20 seconds for each subsequent steeping, each time pouring the tea off into a serving pot (yixing, one would hope, for both pots) before then pouring it into the drinking cups.
    (The style I’m describing is translated as “Old Man Tea,” which hardly anyone has time for, now days. The modern Chinese style is just as likely to be drowning a tea bag as it is for Westerners.) At any rate, when you contrast making yerba mate with tea, it’s really a contrast between mate and the kind of weird tea we’ve learned to make from the English; the traditional styles from China are actually pretty close, except for the service implements.
    At any rate, enjoy whatever it is you’re drinking, and thanks again for the video. (I’ve been drinking mate for over 30 years – my wife learned about it when she spent a year teaching school in Brazil.)
    Paul Weiss (a.k.a. Pablo Blanco)

  3. HI there! I just find you by accident but I’m glad that I did!
    My name is Sabrina and I’m from Argentina but living in US for almost 6 years! It’s so nice to find people that like my culture, you described everything so well!
    Love it! It seems to me that you really got the Argentina culture under control!
    I have to say that what miss the most about food from Argentina is my bread!! and all my pastries! like facturas, medias lunas, alfajores, bizcochitos!!!!
    Very nice to find you have a great day!
    un abrazo
    Sabrina

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