Pass the Mate

Mate. In Argentina, you are bound to hear the word mate in a conversation. Exploring South America, you are very likely to see people walking with a strange cup in one hand and a thermos in the other. Maybe you have tried it or you are curious to know what it is like. Most foreigners are apprehensive to try it because it’s so different and almost sacred to Argentineans. And then we learn that everyone shares the same cup. It’s a lot of culture in one little drink.

My first try was in the comfort of my own home but many people try mate in front of a group of Argentineans because it is, after all, a social drink. It can be embarrassing if you don’t know what to do because there seems to be so many rules! I’ve officially completed my right of passage with mate in Argentina–the day a person drinks mate alone for the very first time. It’s one of the proudest moments in a parent’s life, so I’m told. But preparing mate for a group of people is complicated to learn–what is the technique, the temperature, the etiquette?

Yerba mate, the tea-looking part, comes from the holly plant. As a traditional South American drink, it’s grown and sold in abundance. The leaves from the holly plant are dried and crushed to become yerba. The cup you put the yerba in is actually called the mate…a little tricky there. A mate cup is traditionally made of a type of gourd. The straw you drink from is called a bombilla. The bombilla acts as a filter sucking up the water and leaving behind the yerba. Never move or remove the straw when you are drinking…it’s considered rude and will mess up the yerba flow.

The person who prepares and serves the mate is called the cebador. The cebador will put hot but not boiling water (this is key, don’t let an Argentinean hear the kettle screaming) into the yerba-filled mate cup. I learned to pour the water slowly during the first pour as to let the water seep through the yerba correctly. The cebador will then take the first drink because it is usually cold or too bitter. Once it’s just right, you can pass it around.

Each person will drink all the water from the mate until you hear a sucking noise. This means all the water is gone. Many first-timers (myself included) just take a sip. Think about it–it makes sense to finish all the water. The cebador will refill the mate for each person. If you don’t want more, you say gracias and everyone will understand that you do not want any more. Don’t say gracias just to be polite and say thank you because it will be misinterpreted as I’m finished. So watch out for that additional tricky mate rule.

Mate can be amargo (bitter), dulce (sweet), tereré (with juice instead of water) or another variation. I like to add a little bit of azucar rubia to the water or perhaps some instant coffee if I want more energy for Spanish class. But I also like it bitter without anything added which surprises a lot of porteños. Mate is similar to coffee in the way that it is an acquired taste and the more you drink the more you become accustomed and truly enjoy it. Not only that, but it’s very social. Mate is offered almost instantly upon arriving at an Argentinean home.

And don’t be afraid to drink up! Mate is good for you. It has a fair amount of caffeine to wake you up but contains less than a cup of coffee. It also has antioxidants and a few vitamins and minerals such as iron and Vitamin B. Mate is most often served with galletitas (traditional Argentinean cookies) or facturas such as medialunas around 5, 6 or 7pm in between lunch and dinner. This is great if you are eating dinner according to Argentina time–around 9 or 10 pm!

Be sure to join one of Expanish’s mate tasting classes to learn more and try it for yourself!

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