In order to adequately assimilate into Argentinean culture you better know a bit about yerba mate. From the southernmost city in the world – Ushuaia – to the northernmost point of Argentina, yerba mate, or we simply call it mate, is consumed religiously. It is the lifeforce of the country and a foreigner cannot say that they have been to Argentina without trying it. Many people that I have met down here have been converted to mate and have relinquished their coffee dependencies. As a foreigner that is partial towards coffee, here is a glimpse into my initial perceptions and slow adoption of mate as my primary source of caffeine.
Mate seems to affect people very differently, for example, when I drink it I experience a mellow buzz and have relaxed thoughts. Some of my friends, on the other hand, equate it to crack (I hope they can’t accurately make that comparison) and are surprised that it is even legal. As an addicted coffee drinker from the States, I was initially disappointed in the effects of mate in comparison. I had heard that it was this almost mythical substance that would grant the user superhuman abilities and allow one to think like Einstein (probably not the source of his genius); I thought it was something like ZBT from that movie Limitless. These perceptions were inaccurate but I found that I enjoyed mate for a myriad of other reasons.
Mate contains less caffeine than coffee. Don’t expect to lose control of yourself after a cup, it is not that strong. The buzz people experience from it seems to be more moderate and sustained compared to the fast energy burst from coffee. Also, people claim that they don’t experience the customary coffee crash when they drink mate. For me, the effects are mild yet noticeable; it gives me a good boost when I am tired but never puts me over the top like strong coffee can.
Another reason I enjoy drinking yerba mate is that it just looks cool to drink. The combination of the handcarved-gourd and the metal straw make me feel like I am participating in some ancient spiritual ritual whenever I have a cup, and in a way I am. While modern mate cups are starting to be made from various metals, plastics, and woods, the classic calabash gourd (cuia) is still the most popular. The gourd, combined with the curious spoon-straw-filter, called the bombilla (bom-bi-sha), makes for a unique drinking experience.
In addition to the decorative appeal, the process of pouring a mate is not as straightforward as one would think. Prior to consumption the leaves (yerba) must undergo an obligatory series of shaking and the removal of small particles before the bombilla and hot water are added. The first cup of mate is strong and bitter and called the “mate of the fool”. If you are new to the mate game, avoid drinking the first one and let who ever poured it, called the cebador, drink the first few cups. After the first two cups the mate becomes more mild and bearable. Another option to avoid the bitterness is to include sugar, lemon, mint, or some other enhancer to the mate. Also, many people will include various herbs and health-conscious supplements to their mate.
All the positive effects and aesthetics aside, most importantly mate is a social drink. It is usually shared among friends and family in a circle. The mate moves around the circle in a counter-clockwise rotation starting from the cebador. There is not that much liquid in the cuia since most of the space is taken up by the yerba; finishing an entire cup is a must at one’s turn. While the mate rotates, everyone in the circle is busy chatting. Something about the fact that everyone in the circle is sharing the same thing, a little hollowed-out squash full of leaves, makes for good conversation. In this regard I much prefer mate to coffee. In the morning my coffee is my lifeline, something I need and hord back home – sharing it is not an option. Later in the day it is something that I may get with people to catch-up, but I would never imagine sitting in a circle with a bunch of new friends and strangers pouring each other coffee in the same ceramic mug and passing it around.
When it comes to the health of mate it is both lauded and castigated by many people and organizations. It is either causing cancer or preventing it, no one seems to know for sure. It could possibly be reducing cardiovascular disease and help prevent dandruff. It may lower stress, enhance physical endurance, burn fat, and of course clean your colon. Whether or not you experience these effects, and I hope you do, it is nevertheless a fun drink to be enjoyed in the presence of friends, family, and some occasional strangers.
As I continue to hone my mate drinking abilities, and grow accustomed to the bitterness, I will see if I can replace coffee indefinitely. Returning home will be the deciding factor, I will look crazy sitting in a park trying to usher strangers into my mate circle so I will have to get used to enjoying it alone or in small infrequent groups.
P.S. Try and find unsmoked mate as the smoked mate may increase your chances of developing certain types of cancer.
P.P.S Smoked mate may reduce other types of cancer though.