If you ever visit Argentina, you will see people with cups and straws everywhere you go. In the cities and small villages, at the beach and at the river banks, at home or walking along the streets – they all drink mAte. In this post I will share with you my experience.
What is mAte?
MAte (the accent is on the “a”, that’s why I write it as a capital letter; also to differ it from an English “mate”) is a caffeine containing beverage that is a national drink in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. It is made of yerba mAte – a plant that is mostly grown and processed in the Northern Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and the Southern Brazil. It is also consumed in the mentioned territories and also in the Eastern Bolivia.
People start their day drinking hot mate with cookies or pastry, then again in the afternoon and also when they meet with friends or go for a walk.
To prepare mAte one needs to have dry yerba mAte, a thermos with hot water and (optionally) sugar. Here in Argentina you can buy a set for mate that includes jars for yerba mAte, sugar, a cup with a straw and a thermos.
These bags people take with themselves to drink some mAte after work or while walking in the city. You can see people sitting on the grass, on the benches, under the trees, at the rivers, having a picnic – and all accompanied by mAte. Coffee to go is much less popular here, as traditions in Argentina are strong.
How to prepare mAte
Mate is different from tea and coffee. There is a whole procedure of preparation and drinking it.
First of all, you don’t just drink one cup and it’s over as we do with tea or coffee.
To prepare mAte, take a special cup for it. Initially people used dry calabash fruit as a cup. Now the cups are often wooden or ceramic. Lately plastic cups got quite popular too.
Next, put a metallic straw (in Spanish it is called “bombilla” or “bomba”) in the empty cup. It stays static during all time of drinking mAte, you don’t stir your drink with it. On top of the straw add dry yerba mAte for 3 quarters of the cup. There must be space for water left.
Then heat up water until 70-80 degrees Celsius and pour it in a thermos. If the water is too hot, mAte will be too strong. So pay attention to the temperature.
Put a bit of sugar in the cup, pour water until the cup is full, drink it all and then repeat. The cup is refilled with water until the it gets clear. Once it happens, you can remove a part of yerba mAte and add a new portion of the dry yerba and drink it until the water gets clear again.
It is popular to drink mate with cookies or pastry, but this is not necessary. Chocolate is not so popular as an addition to this drink. Nevertheless, I do eat chocolate while drinking mate 😀
How to drink mAte
Mate is a drink to share, like the pipe of peace. Everyone drinks from the same cup and the same straw.
The owner of the house – or the one who prepares mAte – drinks the first one or two cups, because the first ones are the strongest.
Usually there is one person responsible for pouring water and giving it to everyone. Everyone has their turn to drink mAte. Normally the turn goes clockwise.
My experience of drinking mAte
When I first had got to know that everyone drinks from the same straw, I was a bit skeptical. I am not used to share my drinks, and it was doubtful to me from hygienical point of view.
Once I was told, that it is ok to drink from the same straw, because the water is hot and the metallic straw gets hot too, so all possible bacteria die. I am not a specialist, so I can’t say if it is true.
However, you do not drink mate with strangers. Usually you drink it with close friends and family, so there should not be problems as you are in close contact with these people all the time. I got used to this custom.
Too hot to drink
When I came to Argentina for the first time, I didn’t really like mAte. Not because of its taste, even though it is quite specific. I could not drink it because the straw was getting too hot for me. It burnt my lips, and I sincerely could not understand how people could drink it so hot and so fast.
Next time I came to Argentina I broke its tradition and had my own cup for mAte and my own little kettle with less hot water. People around me always wondered why there were two mAtes on the table and then how I could drink it so cold 😀 Another reason was that I preferred to drink it without sugar, and most people added it.
With the time I got used to higher temperatures, and if I don’t want to, I simply do not add sugar, when it is my turn to drink.
Waiting for my turn
However, now I faced another issue. Drinking mAte is a quite relaxed process. People enjoy conversations with each other with no hurry. I am used to have my own cup to drink tea or coffee as much and as often as I want to.
When you drink mAte with others, you have to wait for your turn. Often I am too impatient to wait, especially if we drink it at the breakfast. When I understand, that I am getting impatient, I break the tradition again and either get myself a “self-mAte” (my own cup) or switch to another drink.
Variations of mAte
There are other ways to drink mate. When it is hot, you can use ice-cold juice instead of hot water. In this case the taste of mAte feels less, but you still get your portion of caffeine.
Also, if you want to have a quick drink, you can get yourself mAte cocido. There are two ways to prepare it.
First – you can get mAte in teabags and prepare it just like tea. Second way is as follows.
Put a small pot with water on fire and wait until it boils. Once it does, add a table spoon of yerba mAte and wait until boils again. Then turn it off and pour the drink through a filter into a cup. Voila, mAte cocido is ready.
Drinking mAte while travelling
From all my experiences in Argentina, one of my favorites is to drink mate somewhere in a beautiful place. When we travel, we always take our mAte bag with us and stop somewhere with a nice view to enjoy this drink.
The most epic place where I’ve had mAte so far was in Altas Cumbres mountains. We were sitting on a cliff with a view to the valley and a fantastic sunset.
If you ever come to the South America and specifically Argentina, drinking mAte is a must-do. In a company of good friends or just by yourself, take a moment and enjoy this old tradition.