If you ever visit Buenos Aires, Montevideo, or any of the other cities in the southern half of South America, you are likely to notice people carrying thermoses everywhere they go, and you are likely to notice people sitting and sharing a steaming beverage in small groups. Everyone, from the business executives in pressed suits to the street workers moving cardboard in carts, can be seen carrying around these thermoses and sharing this drink. What is in the thermoses, and why is the drink so popular?
The drink you see people sharing among their friends is yerba mate, or simply mate. Something like a strong tea, mate is prepared by placing dry leaves into a special mate-drinking cup (also known as a mate). These cups were traditionally made from hollowed-out gourds, but today you can see them made from wood, metal, plastic, and other materials. After the leaves are placed into the cup, a straw with a small sieve on the end (called a bombilla) is placed down into the leaves, and hot water is poured. Sometimes milk or sugar is added, but the traditional way to drink is simply the pure concoction of water and mate. The flavor is potent, earthy, and often bitter, and has been compared to alfalfa or green beans.
Mate is rich in caffeine, and drinking it affects the body and one’s energy levels much the same way as coffee. People often consume mate communally, so one person drinks until the leaves are drained of liquid, and then they add hot water to it and pass it to the next person in the group, who drinks it down and passes it back to the person with the thermos. Argentines and other South Americans can pass hours drinking mate in this manner, in parks or on sidewalks or in the privacy of their homes. When eventually the leaves lose their flavor, the mate is said to be lavado, or “washed” in Spanish.
Yerba mate has been a part of life in South America since before the days of colonization. Indigenous tribes in the northeast of Argentina and in modern Uruguay and Paraguay took the leaves from trees which grow in the wetlands. They used bombillas of cane grass and drank from gourds. When Jesuit missionaries came to the region they adopted the practice, and since then mate has spread through
South America and into the rest of the world. Despite attempts to grow mate trees in other countries, mate can only grow in the specific wetland climate of its origins, which has allowed Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay to develop a robust market exporting it to other countries.
In the United States, it’s not uncommon to find people drinking mate in bags like any other tea. The drink is reputed to have positive effects on the body as well, as a source of several vitamins and a promoter of the immune system, which has added to its popularity. In fact, Albert Einstein is known to have enjoyed yerba mate, and some have speculated that it contributed to his mental fortitude. Mate is certainly an acquired taste, but for fans of the drink there’s really nothing that compares to it.
[Have you tried yerba mate? What did you think and where did you have it?]