Introduction to El Mate
If you have been to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay or Southern Brazil, or you have come across someone from that region in your travels, there is a high chance you have seen a Mate (pronounced Matte).
While it is written the same way as the Australian-English for “Bro”, the mate is a (very) traditional and popular drink from South America, and is prepared by stepping dried leaves of yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) and hot water in a cup, and drunk through a metal straw. Somehow it is kind of a green tea, but the way of drinking it is slightly different.
The traditional cup is made of calabash gourd, however nowadays there are many different new types, made in wood, glass, metal, plastic and even bone! Also, there are many different types of straws, from silver, to stainless steel, cane, and some disposable plastic ones. Traditional drinkers would always stick to calabash and silver, but all of them have a charm.
The mate tradition is said to come from the Gauchos, traditional inhabitants from South America in the last centuries of the second millennium known by their skills as horseman and by being nomads and usually outlaws. Normally, a mate is prepared by putting the leaves in the cup in a diagonal way, serving a little cold water and waiting for it to absorb, then putting warmer water, entering the straw, and finally start pouring hot water (near-to-boiling as per Argentinean standards, boiling as per Uruguayan) in the cup and drinking.
See here a video explaining how to prepare a mate!
One small detail, a very important part of the tradition is that the mate is SHARED! Yes, and we all use the same straw while drinking.
Routine would be:
Put water, then drink, then put water, then pass to the one sitting next to you, then they drink and return to the server, who as you might have guessed, puts water and passes on to the next one, who returns it, to continue “the round”.
The person serving the mate is called cebador (server) in Spanish, and preparador in Portuguese, and there is a lot of tradition in the round he or she leads. For example, if someone says “gracias” (thank you) when returning the mate, it means they are not drinking any more. Also, if someone is holding the mate for too long and keeps talking instead of drinking and returning it, another person might say “it is not a microphone”, as an allusion for saying they are using the mate to deliver a lecture.
Traditional drinkers keep the water hot in a kettle close to the fire, while modern drinkers and travelers might have it inside a flask. If you are drinking with the flask, and happen to drink the last mate before the water is over, the server would say “you are getting married”, as a joke.
It is very normal to gather with friends “a tomar unos mates” (to drink mate), and mate is just a company for great talks. Also, students in college normally drink mate while studying, and sometimes if a little bit of mate stains a sheet of paper, you would say “hoja manchada, hoja aprendida” (sheet stained, sheet learned).
Especially in Uruguay, is extremely normal to see people walking on the street with the flask under their arm, drinking mate all the time, and even forgetting they have it there. They are so used to it!
In the north of Argentina and Paraguay, it is also drunk cold and with juice, being called tereré.
While the leaves might be slightly different depending on the region, no matter from which country the observer is, mate is usually seen by outsiders as a weird drug. Well, it is not! It is just tea!
The yerba mate (the leaves to make the mate) are usually bought packaged in any supermarket in the mate-drinking regions. For those mate-lovers living abroad it is essential to find a place where to buy yerba from, or to import/bring it when traveling home. In Australia, we normally buy it from yerbamateaustralia.com.au.
Have you tried mate? Have you seen it and thought it was weird? Give it a try! We love it!