Mate is a very important part of the Argentine culture. Everywhere you go, you will see people with their mate, thermos, and bag of yerba mate. They drink it in the car, at work, at home, in the park, at the beach, when it´s raining, when it´s 40C, when it’s snowing, always! They love their mate. To understand the Argentine culture, you will have to try mate, but more importantly, learn the importance behind mate. You will find that mate is much more than just a drink, and even if you don´t like the actual mate, you will probably like what it entails.
What is yerba mate? First a few important terms:
mate: the recipient for the tea, usually made from a dried out gourd.
bombilla: a metal straw that is inserted into the mate to drink the tea
yerba mate: the actual tea that you drink. It is sometimes just referred to as “yerba” or as “mate.”
lavado: when the yerba mate is “washed” meaning there is not flavor left
Mate is a type of tea that is very popular in the southern half of South America. It is a loose tea that is prepared with hot water, and drunken out of a gourd using a bombilla. It is very, very bitter, and people rarely like it at first. It is one of those “acquired” tastes. People will sometimes add sugar, herbs, pieces of mint, or orange peel to change the flavor. People also drink roasted mate, which is known as “mate cocido.” This is served in a tea bag, and drunken like a regular tea. It is much less bitter, and therefore easier to get used to.
Preparing mate is somewhat ritualistic, and must be done in a special way. If not, the mate will taste different, and for true mate fanatics (most Argentines), this is not acceptable. Here is what you need to know to make a good mate:
**in these instructions, I use mate to signify the gourd, and yerba to signify the yerba mate tea.
- place a kettle on the stove and heat it up until the water is just about boiling. It is important that you do not pour boiling water on the mate, as this will “burn” it, and wreck the flavor. If you accidentally boil the water, make sure to let it cool off a bit. You want to boil a large quantity of water, because when you drink mate, you fill the mate up various times.
- fill the mate ¾ up with yerba. You can also add a little sugar if you want to take away the bitter edge of the mate. Place your hand on top, and shake the mate for a few seconds. This helps to remove the dust sized yerba particles which can clog the bombilla.
- tilt the mate on its side so the yerba is higher on one side than the other. Then, place the mate flat on the table again. On the side that has less mate, make a small hole with your finger. Put your bombilla into the hole.
- poor the hot water into the hole on top of the bombilla. Do this slowly until the yerba fills up to the top. You will notice the yerba is still higher on one side, and that it stays dry nas you fill the mate with water. This is good, because it means it won´t be too bitter, and also you will be able to fill the mate many times before it loses its flavor.
- your mate is now ready to drink!
You should know that not only is the preparation of mate done in a special way, but there are certain traditions you follow when drinking the mate.
There is always one person who makes the mate, known as the cebador. Usually it’s the host or whoever is known to make the best mate. This person goes through the steps to make the mate, and drinks the first one. They then fill the mate up with hot water again, and pass it to the next person, who drinks the whole thing. They pass the mate back to the cebador. The cebador continues to fill up the mate, and pass it around the circle. Each person always drinks all of the water from the mate. If the yerba becomes lavado, the cebador empties the mate and fills it up with fresh yerba. If you don´t want anymore, then when you pass the mate back to the cebador, you say “thank-you.”
Mate is a truly enjoyable experience, should be shared with friends and family. Many people who leave Argentina bring the mate culture with them.
What does mate mean to the Argentines?
The following is a great description of Mate and how important it is to the Argentine culture. If you know nothing about mate, this will really help you understand its significance in Argentina. It was said by Lalo Mir on Radio Mitre in 2005. I have translated it into English.
Un Mate y Un Amor
A mate is not a drink. Well, ok, it is. It’s a liquid you put it in your mouth. But it is not a drink. It this country, nobody drinks mate because they are thirsty. It is more of a habit, like scratching yourself.
Mate is exactly the opposite of television. It makes you talk if you’re with someone and think when you’re alone. When someone comes to your house, the first thing you say is “hi” followed by “should we drink a few mates?”
This happens in all houses, rich and poor. It happens with women who never stop talking and women who are gossips. It happens with men who are serious and men who are immature. It happens with old people in retirement homes and it happens between teenagers while studying or getting high. It´s the only thing that parents and children can share without arguing and getting into each other´s faces. Peronists and radicals make mate without questioning one another. In summer or winter. It’s the only thing that the victims and the villains, the good and the bad, have in common.
When you have a child, you give them a mate when they ask for it. You give it to them nice and warm, with lots of sugar, and they feel all grown up. You feel great pride when your child begins drinking mate, so much so that your heart swells. With time, they will choose whether to drink it with or without sugar, hot or cold, with orange peel, herbs, or pieces of lemon.
When you meet someone for the first time, you drink some mates. The person making the mate asks: with or without sugar? The other responds: However you drink it.”
Keyboards in Argentina are full of little pieces of yerba mate. Mate is the only thing that every house has all the time. Always. Amidst inflation, when there´s hunger, under a military regime, with democracy, during whichever of our eternal curses we are suffering. If one day you run out of yerba mate, a neighbor will give you some. Nobody is ever denied mate.
This is the only country in the world where a child becomes an adult on one particular day. It has nothing to do with longer pants, circumcision, university, or living away from your parents. Here we become adults the day we feel the need to drink a few mates for the first time while we are alone. It’s not a coincidence. It’s not just because. The day a child puts the kettle on the fire and drinks their first mate when no one else is home, in this moment, they have discovered that they have a soul. Maybe they are scared to death, or completely in love, or something: but it is not just any day. None of us remember the day in which we drank our first mate by ourselves. But it must have been an important day for each of us. Inside of us there are revolutions.
A simple mate is nothing more and nothing less than a demonstration of values…
It’s the solidarity of putting up with mates lavados* because the conversation is too good…the conversation, NOT the mate!
It´s the respect for the time to talk and time to listen…you speak while the other drinks
…the sincerity to say “that´s enough, change the mate.
….friendship in the moment.
…the sensitivity to boiling water**.
…the tenderness to ask “It´s hot, isn´t it?”
…the modesty of who makes the best mate.
…the generosity to give until the end.
…the hospitality of an invitation (to drink mate)
…the justice for each individual.
…the obligation to say “thank-you” at least once a day***
…the ethical, franc, and loyal attitude to get together for no other reason than to share.
*a mate lavado refers to when the yerba mate is “washed out” meaning it has lost its flavor, and needs to be replaced with more mate.
**sensitivity to boiling water because boiling water will “burn” the mate, wrecking its flavor.
***when you are finished drinking mate, you say “thank-you” meaning you don´t want anymore.
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