From the rainforests in the North to the glaciers in the South, you will find Argentineans drinking mate (MAH-tay) no matter the weather. But what exactly is it? Yerba mate is a tea-like plant with high levels of caffeine traditionally drank out of calabash gourds and sipped through a filtered straw called a bombilla. The history of yerba mate is long and extensive- full of gods, jaguars, warriors, and more. The Guaraní people, who were the first to consume mate, claimed that the Goddesses of the Moon and the Cloud came to Earth to visit, but found a jaguar that was going to harm them. A man rescued them, and the Goddesses gave the man a plant, which he could use to make a drink. This drink would be a “drink of friendship” and that plant was yerba mate.
The importance of this beverage to the culture cannot be understated. Where there are people, there is mate. Hot water dispensers lie in every gas station and their kettles have a mate setting for the perfect drinking experience. Although a casual event, drinking mate has evolved into an almost ritualistic practice that is paired with esoteric rules and etiquette that can be unknown or daunting to newcomers. But fear not! Below are a few key points to keep in mind to impress your friends next time you share this herbal elixir.
- The person in charge of the mate and refilling it is called the cebador (the primer). This is usually the individual providing the mate or whoever has the most experience serving. The cebador fills the gourd two-thirds full, tilts it to create a well for the water, and sticks in the bombilla. The initial steep is especially bitter and considered unfit for guests, so the cebador is tasked with drinking this first serving.
- The vessel is then refilled and passed in turn, usually to the right. The entire gourd’s contents are for you to enjoy, but don’t dawdle for too long! Others are also awaiting their turn and Argentineans aren’t afraid to tell you that you’re hogging the mate. Once finished, return the mate to the cebador.
- When drinking mate, don’t get up and move around or change seats. This can disrupt the flow of service and cause confusion as to whose turn it is. Take this moment to relax and enjoy your company at present.
- Don’t say “gracias” to the cebador. At least not right away! Good manners are always appreciated, but while drinking mate, saying “thank you” can mean “I’m finished”, signifying that you have had your fill of tea.
- And whatever you do, DON’T MOVE THE BOMBILLA. This is considered the biggest faux pas in mate culture. Moving the straw around affects the flavor and in the worst cases, causes the straw to completely clog, halting the entire experience for everyone. Nicknames are big in Argentina, and you don’t want yours to be “Boludo” or “Quilombero”, trust me.
And there you have it! With all this in mind, you are ready to imbibe one of nature’s oldest libations. Through mate, Argentineans have learned to stop what they’re doing and take a moment of their day to connect with those around them. Togetherness is a way of life for them. This feeling of camaraderie and sharing is a palpable reality when visiting the country, and I believe that these little leaves helped bolster that remarkable sense of community. Salud!