Discovering Yerba Mate
Your long flight from home has finally touched down in the buzzing city that is Buenos Aires. You’ve finally made it through customs after waiting what only feels like forever lugging your huge suitcase which is bursting at the seams. You then hop in an Uber which takes you to your final destination in the buzzing city of Buenos Aires. As you rest your head on the window and gaze out in the hustle and bustle of city life wondering what your future in Buenos Aires awaits you. Then you notice what this strangely shaped container that people are holding and sipping out of. In parks, people sat in groups passing it around between them. A couple sat on a bench sharing one between them. Or the old lady sat in the local fruit and veg shop sipping on one too. Or in the local markets whether it’s in Recoleta or San Telmo there are stalls and stalls of these containers in all different shapes and sizes, even in my Spanish School the Spanish teacher will constantly drink mate. Sometimes they’re wooden and engraved, sometimes they’re metal, big or small. They’re everywhere! What are these containers and why is everyone obsessed with them!?
Well you’re about to find out why
This container is what Argentinians call Mate and they don’t go a day without drinking it. It is a traditional South American drink and it can also be found in Uruguay, parts of Chile and Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. This caffeine-rich infused drink is made from dried leaves called yerba mate mixed with hot water. Yerba mate leaves are dried chopped and ground into a powder. It is then drunk through a metal straw (traditionally silver) known in Argentina as a Bombilla but can sometimes have a different name depending on what country you’re in. The bombilla also acts as a sort of sieve too. Also, the reason why you often see people carrying big thermo flasks when they drink mate it is because they want to keep the water warm as the mate is always refilled several times.
How do you make mate?
Yerba Mate isn’t too difficult to make if you follow the instructions.
- You start by filling the container until it’s just over half full with the yerba.
- Then place your hand on the top of the half-filled container and turn it upside down and give it a bit of a shake bringing the more powdery leaves to the top. This helps you to not suck up the powdery leaves later on!
- Then turn the container on its side and give it a few more shakes meaning the yerba is on a pile on one side.
- Now time for the bombilla! Add a bit of cool water to help preserve some of the mate.
- Then put the bombilla in the empty space in the container trying hard not to disturb the leaves. Bring the bombilla to the wall of the container as far away as you can from the mixture and add cold water until it reaches the top of the powdery pile (with the top of the pile still dry) and wait for the water to be absorbed.
- Pour hot water into the empty space just as you did with the cold water. The water should be about 80 degrees.
- Drink from the bombilla until you drink the entire mate. Don’t just keep sipping. Also, try not to jiggle the straw as you will end up clogging the bombilla.
- The person that makes the mate drinks first and then they refill it and pass it to the next person keeping the same bombilla.
- Keep refilling the container until it loses its taste. It should last for about 10 refills.
- To signal that you don’t want anymore give it back to the ‘el cebador’ (the server) and give them “thanks”. Remember to give “thanks” only after your last mate. Once you have given a “thanks”, you will not be served anymore mate.
The Ritual of Mate
Discover the best places to try Yerba Mate here.
Mate is not just the equivalent of our cup of tea that we drink as and when we want. For Argentinians, Mate also has a ritual attached to it. It is normally drunk in social settings at family gatherings or with friends. The mate cup and the bombilla are shared between everyone. One person is nominated to be the cebador and they take on the task of serving and preparing the mate, making sure that it is free of dust and is good quality. The cebador must always drink first otherwise it can be considered bad manners as the drink may be too cold or too strong. After the cebador has finished his mate he passes it to his or her right then passing it back to cebador once it is finished. Unlike in England or the US, you are allowed to make a final slurping noise on the bombilla to make sure all the liquid has been finished. The ritual then carries on until the mate has no more flavour.
Some drinkers like to sweeten the mate by adding sugar or honey but this is more common in Brazil. Some people like to add lemon or orange peel, more herbs or even coffee!