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Mate: More Than Just Tea

By Fernanda Oliver

Ooh, mate, my faithful companion.

For this last issue of the Willamette World News, I was asked to write about something that was deeply related to my country’s culture. If I had to choose one element that is linked to Argentine culture, history, traditions, people, and basically everything, it all comes down to a humble and simple device: El MATE.

Mate is yerba mate leaves made into an infusion or tea. It is a traditional beverage in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil. It contains caffeine yet it is better than coffee — it gives you energy and comforts your soul.

The history of mate dates back to pre-colonial times. The yerba mate plant whose technical name is Ilex paraguariensis, grows in the northeast of Argentina and it extends north to Paraguay. It is said that guaraní people (native Argentinian indigenous) consumed some kind of tea made from this plant, and later it was “discovered” by the colonizers. Ever since then all kinds of people continue to drink it.

Mate has been part of Argentinian culture for a long time. It is one of the traditions that has survived everything in our history. It has been part of indigenous cultures, gauchos culture, and even nowadays it is widely consumed by almost every Argentinian from age 1, or even before.

Mate as a Social Device

Even though for any foreigner mate is just another beverage, for Argentine people it is more than that. It is a drink that is not a drink. Of course it is an infusion, but nobody drinks mate in Argentina because they are thirsty. Mate is not about satisfying a physiological need, but rather about fulfilling a social and spiritual one.

Let me be more clear, it is not the drink but what happens around the drink, the social exchange or the mediating state (if one drinks alone). Mate has the opposite effect to computers, mobile phones, or television; it invites people to talk, to express their feelings, to discuss what is going on in their lives, to give and receive advice, and so many more things. Mate topics, as in conversation topics, are infinite.

When a group of Argentines shares a mate, one can talk about anything. It is said that a mate can heal a broken heart or celebrate the happiest of news.

Mate is an acquired taste; our parents have the duty to introduce us to mate’s flavor from a very young age. Argentine people get used to mate, and then it becomes a custom.

Mate is very popular among students. There seems not to be a better way to get together and study than to have a mate with friends while doing homework. Or if you are studying alone, it helps to keep you awake and attentive to do as much as possible.

Truth is, mate is everywhere in Argentina. You can find it in every single social environment that you can think of. At school, work, among youths, old people, the poor or the rich, su
perheroes (picture below); mate makes us equal. Nobody would say no to a mate invitation. And if they do, they sure have a valid excuse.

There even was a time when people used mate to convey certain meanings or feelings, such as:

– Bitter mate: indifference.
– Sweet mate: friendship.
– With cinnamon: thinking of you.
– With milk: affection.
– Very hot: love.
– With honey: marriage.

So, as you may have noticed there is more to mate than being just a beverage. It is also the perfect travel companion.

And it can be like the flag that you plant every time you visit a new place. It is Argentinidad in a pure state.

International Perspective

I made an experiment for the sake of this article. I had my roommates from Germany, France, and Russia try mate. It was a simple experiment. They tried mate and they had to say the first thing that came to their minds after that.

Stina Köester from Germany was the first. “It’s so like grass,” she said. Thing is, from the international perspective it tastes like grass, mint, or herbs, but for me it tastes just like mate and nothing else.
I continued to get the French perspective from my colleague Julie Dine. She said, “It’s strong tea. Very bitter,” as she tried to swallow the liquid showing some difficulty. I think that we usually learn that mate is better if one takes small sips.
Finally, María Ulibegova from Russia, “It makes me wanna drink water and eat something sweet.” Usually, mate is accompanied by some pastries and is often preferred sweet among foreigners.

I think only Argentinian people are able to drink it bitter (as it should be).

How to Prepare and Drink Mate Properly

To prepare a good mate you need:

– A gourd or mate: it can be any kind. There are several types like glass, wood, metal, plastic, or even pumpkin gourds. You can also can make a mate from an orange or a pomegranate.
– A straw or bombilla.
– Yerba mate.
– Hot water (or cold water in case you want to prepare tereré which is usually drunk in the north regions of Argentina where it is too hot to drink it warm)
– Sugar if you want sweet mate.

Once you have all the ingredients you can follow these simple steps and have a perfect espumoso (frothy) mate ready to drink:

1. Pack the dry, loose yerba mate into the gourd just over half full.

2. Place your hand on the top of the half-filled gourd and turn it upside-down. Shake the more powdery leaves to the top of the gourd with several flicks of the wrist. This helps to ensure that you don’t suck in the powdery leaves through the bombilla later.

3. Turn the gourd almost completely on its side and give it several light shakes back and forth. This action will bring the larger stems to the surface, which will help filter the powdery leaves later. Slowly and carefully tilt the gourd right side up so that the yerba mate remains in a lopsided pile on one side.

4. Insert the bombilla into the gourd. Put the straw in the empty space next to the pile, being careful not to disturb the arrangement. Bring the end of the bombilla to the bottom and against the wall, as far from the powdery tip of the pile as possible. Then add cold water into the empty space until just before it reaches the top of the pile and wait for it to be absorbed. Try to keep the powdery tip of the pile dry.

5. Pour hot water into the empty space as you did with the cool water. It is important that you use hot water (70–80 °C, 160–180 °F) not boiling water, as boiling water will make the mate too bitter.

6. Drink from the bombilla. Newcomers to mate tend to jiggle the bombilla and stir the herb. Resist this temptation, or you’ll end up clogging the straw and allowing herb into it. Drink the entire mate when it’s handed to you, don’t just take a small sip and pass it back. You should hear a sound similar to when drinking soda with straw.

There is always a cebador, who prepares the mate and pours water for everyone sharing the same straw. Usually you drink until mate is washed up (loses its flavor) or in Spanish lavado. If you do not want to drink anymore, you have to give thanks or say gracias to the cebador and he will stop giving you mate.

I really enjoy mate, either with friends or by myself. During this almost ten months in the United States, mate has been my little piece of home by my side all the time. I even skype with my family and friends over mate sometimes.

Now that you know more about mate, if you see me around campus drinking it do not hesitate to ask for one. A kiss, a glass of water, and a mate are not denied to anybody in my country.

I want to thank to all of my family and friends from Malargüe, Mendoza, Argentina who shared their mate pictures with me and allowed me to use them in this article.


Assunçao, Fernando O.  (2012) Pilchas Criollas –  Editorial: Zagier & Urruty Pubns, Montevideo, Uruguay.



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