There are several rites of passage in Argentina. The first choripán. The first sip of Fernet. The first puteada you receive for ignoring a red light. You could very well make one of those cute baby albums with a picture of each of these memories titled “my first steps as an adopted Argentine.”
Very high on this list should probably be the ritual of mate, that caffeine-rich infused drink that, according to a study by the National Institute of Yerba Mate (yes, that is a real thing) is available in 98 percent of households in Argentina. So let’s take a deep dive into the mate culture, shall we?
Note: This article is best when read while drinking some mate, so by all means go heat up your kettle right now.
What is mate, exactly?
Mate is made from yerba mate, a tree found in Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina. The plant’s leaves are picked, dried, processed, and packaged. Back in the day (like way, way back in the day) an indigenous tribe called the guaraní started to consume it for medicinal purposes as it’s a natural antioxidant, diuretic, and laxative.
In time, it began to have strong cultural connotations and became the national drink of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Argentines alone consume close to 14 pounds of this thing a year, according to – guess who? The National Institute of Yerba Mate, that’s who! (Once again, an actual real thing).
It’s usually a bit of a bitter taste, but some people like to sweeten it, either by adding sugar or honey to the water or directly to the mate. This is kind of a divisive issue down here, but I would recommend you try both versions and just stick to the one you like.
So first and foremost, you need the yerba mate (duh). You can choose from an absurd amount of brands displayed in all their glory in an entire aisle in your closest supermarket. There’s with palo (plant stems) or without, there are yerba mates mixed with other herbs like chamomile, linden, or boldo, there are orange- and lemon-flavored yerba mates, roasted yerba mates, organic yerba mates… If I keep listing them I’m gonna turn into Bubba, naming shrimp dishes (cue the Forrest Gump reference) so I’ll stop now. Suffice to say, there’s a vast variety of options, so ask your local friend which brand is best for you (or just make a wild guess).
Then there’s the actual vessel which will contain the yerba mate, which is called mate. This also comes in various forms, from the more traditional gourd and wood, to the more modern silicone or ceramic. The gourd and wood combo is the most popular by far, as it can be “cured,” which gives the infusion more flavor over time.
To top it all off is the straw called a bombilla, which is usually made of stainless steel. Bombillas, by the way, have to be washed regularly, for the love of God. Do not be one of those people that somehow figures that it’s self-cleansing because of the heat or something like that. By draining them in some water and sodium bicarbonate you’ll be cool *and* germ-free. (For more on germs, please continue to read).
All these elements are also vary broadly in price. Some people prefer any disposable kit, while some can only drink mate from a set that has been passed on from five generations back and which they’ll someday give their own first borns in some sort of moonlit ceremony or something.
Now this is were things get dicey, so pay attention. It’s not as easy as pouring hot water on the thing, slurping it up, and talking bout’ life lessons. The mate ritual is a delicate dance that requires calculating temperatures and knowing about angles. Yeah, who would’ve thought that math had anything to do with this?
First of all, the water for mate use cannot boil. I cannot stress this enough so here goes: it goes in bold and all caps: THE WATER FOR MATE CANNOT BE BOILING. There’s actually an ideal temperature for mate, which is around 70°C and 85°C. There are even some electric kettles in Argentina that signal the exact temperature so that you don’t have any excuses to screw this up. Pull yourself together.
The other math issue has to do with the fact that you have to incline the yerba against the wall of the mate at a 45-degree angle, enough space to put a bit of the water little by little, and then – and only then – insert the bombilla. Are you anxious yet?
“I’m just a social drinker”
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in the ritual of mate comes when you realize that drinking it socially means you have to share the same container and bombilla with a group of people, some of whom you may not even know. For Argentines, this is not really an issue since they’ve been doing this thing all their lives. But for the rest of us it takes some time to get over, and for those who have bigger issues with germs, it may be the end of the game for them. You could stop reading now if you’re one of these people. It’s been a pleasure.
Those who wish to continue with the ritual should know it’s actually a pretty beautiful thing. For me, it’s been a nice tool for socializing, first as a student and then with my coworkers. It’s a nice way to interact and be included in brainstorming sessions and overall conversations. You don’t want to be that douche that says “no” to the mate round and have people talk about you behind your back, do you?
Here’s how it works. There’s a cebador, who will be the one in charge of preparing the mate. He will take the first turn and drink it whole, before filling it up again and passing it on around. Each person that receives it gets to drink its content full again and then is obliged to give it back to the cebador. This goes on for as long as there is boiling water in the cebador’s thermos (this was a trap… THE WATER FOR MATE CANNOT BOIL. We talked about this already, come on.).
Some final mate tips
- When drinking with friends, it’s strictly prohibited to move the bombilla from its position. This is very important if you want to preserve your friendship with the cebador. I’d put this tip in bold and all caps but I’m going to trust you on this one, OK?
- You should not cut in line and drink someone else’s mate if it’s their turn. This is actually good advice for anything in life: do not cut in line in any situation, not in a bank line, not in traffic… Just don’t be that person.
- If the mate was served bitter by the cebador then you’re obviously not allowed to sweeten it yourself.
- If you do not want to drink any more, you can take a pass by saying “gracias” which, as you hopefully know by now, means thank you.
If for some reason you have no attention span or prefer to consume information solely via video, check out this (not-so-short) tutorial below: