Yerba Mate: The Soul of Argentina

Yerba Mate: The Soul of Argentina

February 17, 2011

When hearing “Argentina“, many people think of the tango, or wine, or good beef.  But for me personally, nothing symbolizes Argentina more than yerba mate.

Yerba Mate is a tea made of, you guessed it, yerba mate.  It can be consumed hot or cold.  It is made from the leaves of the yerba mate tree, a tropical member of the holly family that is native to Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and southern Brazil.  The indigenous tribes of the area have enjoyed yerba mate for centuries, and it is now consumed by Argentinians from all walks of life.  Over 90% of adult Argentinians consume yerba mate.  It is the second most commonly consumed beverage in Argentina, outstripped only by water.

Yerba mate is a mild stimulant, like coffee and tea.  It’s different, though.  While it contains caffeine, it is low in tannins and acids, so is less likely to cause jitters and stomach acids like coffee.  In addition, yerba mate is said to contain many vitamins and minerals.  Indigenous people drank it for pleasure, for medicinal reasons, and as part of religious or spiritual ceremonies.  The first known cultivation was by Jesuit missionaries.  By the time Darwin visited South America on the Beagle, the drinking of yerba mate was firmly entrenched in Argentine culture.

Recently discovered by North Americans, yerba mate has been touted as a miracle drug that promotes weight loss, cures cancer, and probably cleans your house while tap dancing.  Let’s be clear – yerba mate is not a miracle drug.  But it is a fascinating and unique part of deep South American culture.

While yerba mate now is sometime brewed in a tea infuser or coffee pot, traditionally yerba mate is brewed and served in a hollowed-out gourd, and sipped through a metal straw that also serves as a filter. Both the gourd  (the mate) and the straw (known as a bombilla) are often beautifully decorated.  While traditionally the mate was truly a gourd, now you will find them made of all types of materials, from wood and leather to metal or ceramics.  They come in all shapes as well, with people swearing to the superiority of a certain shape or size.

Yerba mate is drunk at all hours, by people from all walks of life.  While it is often a routine pleasure, sharing traditionally brewed yerba mate with friends still has a vaguely ceremonial feel.

The host will fill the mate with leaves, and add hot water.  He or she will drink the first gourd, as it is considered inferior.  Next the host will refill the gourd, and pass it counter-clockwise it to the next person.  Drink all of it, but don’t move the bombilla.  Part of the server’s job is to find the perfect spot for the bombilla, where the tea will flow freely.  When you are done, pass it back to the server to refill again for the next person.

Drinking yerba mate with someone is a great way to cement a friendship.  The taste takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s worth cultivating for the friendship and respect it brings.

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