What’s Mate, and How Do You Drink It?
One of the first things you’ll notice when you step foot in Argentina is un argentino carrying a thermos and drinking from what looks like a wooden cup with a metal straw. This centuries old custom is shared among family and friends to signify friendship and build community. But, what are they drinking? Mate! While Chileans, Uruguayans, Paraguayans, Bolivians, and Brazilians alike enjoy this South American tea-like beverage, mate is largely associated with Argentina with its history dating back to the gauchos (cowboys) and the indigenous Guaraní.
Traditionally known as yerba mate, mate is the most commonly used term. The leaves for mate come from a holly like shrub and are prepared similarly to tea, but without tea bags or individual mugs. The indigenous Guaraní originally chewed the plant for rejuvenation after working in sugar cane, tobacco, cotton, and indigo fields. Argentine cowboys (the gauchos) would drink mate to relax after a long days work and socialize with other gauchos.
Why the Mate ‘Obsession’?
While the porteños (locals from Buenos Aires) and Argentineans alike won’t openly admit it, their daily life is surrounded by mate and planned around when they’ll matear. Argentineans thrive on it, particularly women in Buenos Aires as the rich antioxidant drink promotes weight loss and fights cholesterol. The plant is high in iron, calcium, and phosphorus and boosts your immune system as well as helping with digestion.
Not only is it healthy for you, but it has a high caffeine content and a different form of caffeine from the usual coffee and tea. Instead of affecting the central nervous system, it relaxes muscle tissue and doesn’t give you a caffeine crash that coffee and tea do, but rather relaxes the body and works to ease anxiety and depression. Better yet, it has alkaline-like contents rather than acidic style in coffee, so it’s far less harmful on the stomach. Similar to tea time in England or grabbing a coffee with friends in the USA, drinking mate is an important social custom that signifies friendship and keeps you warm during the chilly winter months.
Most Importantly…How Do I Drink It?
Enjoying mate isn’t difficult, but there are some steps to follow to ensure you’ll be invited to matear again. Observing will do you wonders, but here are some quick explanations of terms and tradition:
- Follow the cebador. The cebador is generally the person who initiates the mate session and takes care of preparing and maintaining the mate. The fill the cup (typically a hollowed out gourd) with mate, add hot water to test if it’s okay for drinking, and adjusts it to the groups’ liking. When the water runs out, el cebador refills to continue the mate enjoyment.
- Dulce o amargo? The traditional style in enjoying mate is amargo, or bitter. Most non-Argentineans find the taste unpleasant and opt for honey or sugar in their mate. However, just like with beer, the bitter taste grows on you over time and you’ll soon be a bitter mate lover.
- Drink and pass. The point of mate is to share and chat. Everyone drinks from the same gourd and the same metal straw (in Argentina it’s called a bombilla). Take a few sips while you chat, and pass it on to the next person mateando. If you’re out of water, pass it back to the cebador for a refill.
- Don’t slurp it, stir it, or touch the end of the straw. There are few mistakes you can make in mate etiquette. Follow the cebador and (s)he will make sure you’re taken care of, but don’t slurp it or you’ll inhale the mate leaves nor stir it since most prefer it bitter. You’ll also indirectly insult the cebador by saying it wasn’t prepared correctly! Since you all share the same straw and cup, don’t touch the end of the straw and move it from the middle if you need to. When passing the ceba (gourd-like cup) on to the next person, make sure the straw is pointing towards them!
Argentineans are notorious for carting their mates everywhere–at the park, at work, at a cafe, at home, at parties, during open air markets, while traveling…there’s never an inappropriate time to matear.
While some enjoy it in a circle with a large group of friends or with one person, it’s a common social custom and shows a sign of trust as you share the same gourd and straw. Once you get your mate feet wet, you could even check out the Mate Museum in Tigre.
You’ll more than likely be introduced to it your first few days on your program with CIS Abroad in Buenos Aires and in no time you’ll find out if you’re on team ducle or team amargo!