A world of mystery surrounds yerba maté for foreigners in Argentina.
What is it? How do you drink it? And why on earth do groups of people everywhere — in parks, in squares, on steps — seem to be passing around a cup of it?
The short answer is that yerba maté, or simply maté, to Argentinians is the equivalent of coffee to the Americans, black tea to the Brits and matcha to the Japanese.
This caffeine-rich concoction of chopped and dried yerba maté, prepared in a maté (gourd) and drunk through a bombilla (silver straw), is their beloved national drink.
It delivers the alertness of coffee without the jitters, it’s prepared with a ritual similar to a matcha ceremony, and it has a social function like that of a British cuppa.
But yerba maté can’t be reduced to comparisons. It has a character wholly, deliciously its own.
Health benefits of yerba mate
Maté has long been used by Indigenous people in South America for its medicinal properties. Herbalists use it as a beverage to treat everything from arthritis to headache, constipation to hypertension, and obesity to hepatic disorders.
And scientific research into the health benefits of yerba maté, or Ilex paraguariensis, supports its traditional usage.
Among other benefits, studies show yerba maté is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, and has anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. It can also supercharge your cognitive powers and potentially ward off dementia, improve cardiovascular function, help protect against diabetes and obesity, promote digestion and boost your immune system.
That’s a lot of goodness in a beverage — but you won’t necessarily love it at first sip.
When I first tasted the brew heading north through the vast Patagonian steppe, I quietly wondered what all the fuss was about. Travellers left and right to me loved it so much they’d bought their own matés and bombillas, but I found it bitter and grassy.
It grew on me though because, while maté’s an acquired taste, the flavour does vary with the variety of the herb used. And the maté experience goes far beyond the drink itself.
Yerba maté is about connection
A traditional South American drink that’s also drunk in Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and parts of Brazil, yerba maté is a way to bring people together.
While it’s possible to now buy maté cocido, or maté in a teabag designed for one, yerba maté is typically drunk in group, with a single gourd passed around many.
Sitting in a circle drinking maté with family and friends is the ultimate in Argentinean pastimes. It combines two of their favourite things: talking and spending time with loved ones.
To share maté is to share a moment with others.
So if you’re offered yerba maté on your travels through Argentina, try to get over the horror of others’ germs on the shared bombilla and accept. It’s a sign of welcome — and a brilliant way to practice your Spanish and make friends!
How to prepare yerba maté like an Argentinean
Here’s how I was taught to prepare maté by my teacher at a Spanish school in Buenos Aires. Below is her recipe for success.
You will need:
- Heat the water to 75-80 degrees Celsius. Any hotter and you’ll burn the herb, making it bitter. Once it’s the right heat, pour it into a thermos to keep it that way.
- Grab your maté and fill it a little over halfway with yerba maté.
- Place your hand over the top of the half-filled container. Turn it upside down and give it a bit of a shake to bring the more powdery leaves to the top. This means you won’t be drinking dust.
- Turn the container on its side and give it a few more shakes so the yerba is on a pile on one side.
- It’s bombilla time. Position it so the curved part faces down, and put it close to the wall in the empty space in the container so you don’t disturb the leaves. Add cold water into the empty space until it reaches the top of the powdery maté pile (but keep the top dry). Wait for the water to be absorbed.
- Pour hot water into the empty space just as you did with the cold water, filling the mate up. This is the place you’ll pour water in after every round.
- The person who makes maté — el cebador (the server) — drinks first, so drink from the bombilla until you drink the whole cup. Don’t move the straw, as doing so may clog the filter and you’ll have to start the process again!
- Once you’ve drunk the maté, fill it with hot water — pouring it into the same place you did last time — and hand the cup to the first person to your right. Use the same bombilla. Once that person has drunk the full cup, they’ll hand it back to you.
- Refill the maté and pass it to the next person to the right. Keep passing it around the circle until the herb loses its taste.
- El cebador must always drink first, otherwise it can be considered bad manners as the drink may be too cold or too strong.
- To keep drinking maté, don’t say gracias when el cebador hands it to you. Saying thanks signals that you don’t want any more maté.
- Never move the bombilla once it’s inserted. If you jiggle it around, pieces of maté may clog the filter, making you everyone’s least favourite foreigner.
- Don’t boil the water. If it’s any hotter than 80 degrees Celsius, it will burn your mate, making it bitter and unpleasant to drink.
- If you don’t like the flavour of yerba maté, try other variations used by South Americans. Some add honey or sugar, some prepare the tea with cold water, while others mix yerba with other herbs, orange or lemon peel, or even coffee.
The best place to try yerba mate is in Argentina! Explore our range of small group adventures in this incredible country now.
Feature photo by Larisa Blinova, Shutterstock.