The Art of the Mate – Argentinian Culture in a Cup

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

“It appears to be just a drink but is so much more.
An opportunity for sharing conversation, even in a store.
Different flavors but strict rules to make it
With amazing health benefits the more you drink it.”

Heather Markel, May 2019.

 

Yerba mate is one of my most favorite experiences in Argentina. In fact, I’ve just crossed back into Argentina from Chile, as I write this, and feel I am finally at home seeing everyone with their mate cups as I wonder the streets. Back in New York, I had heard of yerba mate, but thought it was tea. Now I know better! 

Yerba mate at the supermarket – it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2019

“Yerba mate” refers to the herb, and “mate” refers to the cup you drink it from. The herb comes from a plant grown in Posadas, in the Missiones region of Argentina, near Iguazu. It originated with the Guarani natives around the 16th century. They would drink the herb both to enjoy it and as medicine. The plant grows into a small tree. The natives would bury their dead near yerba mate plants, and when they cultivated the leaves, they believed the herb contained their spirit. This may explain the beautiful culture of sharing the drink among friends and strangers. The Spanish conquistadors learned about the drink from the natives and were the first to domesticate the plants and grow it for export. Supposedly, the plant has many healing properties, among which is combatting cholesterol. This is a good thing since the Argentinian diet is comprised of so much meat and cheese, I don’t know how anyone here survives past the age of 20. Despite it’s healing qualities, like tea and coffee, it’ll stain your teeth if you drink it daily.

“The heart of the Argentinian culture.”

The essentials of drinking a mate are: a mate cup, a straw known as a “bombilla” to drink it, a thermos of water, and the yerba mate. All four pieces require some education. Let’s start with the cup. Every store in Argentina sells them – I’m seriously considering throwing out my clothes to fill my suitcase with one of each kind, from each city I visit. They are made from plastic, wood, glass, squash and even the hoof of cows! A real mate drinker buys a cup made from wood or squash (pumpkin gourd) because those enhance the flavor of the yerba. Each of these require a curing process; for three days you have to fill your cup with mate and water and let it sit all day to remove impurities and smells that would detract from the yerba’s taste.

Mate cups for sale.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2019

Next is the “bombilla” – straw. This is how you drink your mate. They come in a thousand varieties and designs. You can find them in the supermarket, the stores that sell mate cups, and in local artisans’ shops. You’ll be drinking hot water through these straws so investing in a straw made from “Alpaca” (not the animal, it’s a silver-colored alloy that contains copper and nickel) will help you avoid burning your mouth. (A cheap bombilla is around $3 and you can find others costing as much as $20.)  The water is of course how you make the mate, but here’s where things get heated, or, rather, not so much! Never let your mate water boil because water that hot will burn the yerba and ruin the flavor. Water heaters in Argentina have an actual mate setting! If you don’t have one, then watch your water and remove it as soon as the tiny bubbles begin to form.

Finally there’s the Yerba mate. I’m pretty sure wars could be started in Argentina over forceful discussions of yerba mate quality. Absolutely every Argentinian person I’ve spoken with tells me that the brand they like is the best. It’s said so emphatically there’s no room for argument, especially while you’re learning the language. I’ve now been told about seven different brands that are the best one in Argentina. I’ve also been told that the good brands have “palo,” – pieces of wood that flavor the herb. What it really comes down to is what flavor do you enjoy most? There’s plain yerba mate which can have a smooth or sharp/robust flavor. There are flavored varieties such as orange, mint and grapefruit. You can even find smoked varieties. Then, you can start adding various herbs to enhance the flavor. The stronger varieties cause some people stomach aches, but so far, they are my favorites!
The truth is, yerba mate is an experience, not just a drink. It’s how you make friends and get to know people in Argentina. Just today, before writing this post, the man in a shop I was in offered me some of his mate. I’ve accepted many offers from strangers, drinking from the same straw and sharing stories, it’s such a beautiful part of this culture. Before I invested in my own mate cup and bag and accessories, I bought a “mate listo” (ready-made) complete with a Styrofoam thermos, cup, straw and herb. I bought it on a boat cruise from Bariloche hoping to share it with the new Argentinian friends I had made. I was told our boat would have hot water, but they didn’t. My friends were so surprised that they went back to the boat cafeteria and inquired, in better Spanish, just to be sure. Mate is serious business.
If that’s not enough of a reason for you to love this drink, consider the health benefits. As I mentioned, it’s known to fight cholesterol. It’s also supposed to help you focus – I’ve been drinking it as I write my blog posts and definitely notice how focused I am! Even more interesting, a recent study by Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) concluded that yerba mate can prolong the life of the dopaminergic neurons which are impacted with Parkinson’s disease. In other words, it may prevent the onset of Parkinson’s. This drink has some truly amazing qualities.

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