While upon first glance many people believe the locals in Argentina are drinking tea, but the concoction is actually a blend of herbs. Mate, an infusion prepared with yerba mate leaves called “Ílex paraguariensis,” contains caffeine, herbs and proteins as well as hot water. It has been drunk since Pre-Colombian times by the Guaraníes, a local group in South America. Argentina is the world’s number one producer of yerba mate, making this a great cultural experience to have while traveling in the country.
During my visit to Argentina, I saw people everywhere carrying thermoses of hot water and mates, metal cup-like things with bombillas, which are the long metal straws poking out. In every shop and market you will also be able to find ornate mates for purchase. Luckily, I got to try mine with a local friend and learn more about what mate means to locals in Argentina.
“It’s merely an infusion, but it has a huge meaning of sharing,” explained my local friend Javier Viñuela, whose mother had prepared some mate for a group of us in her home. “As it usually happens with food, drinking mate is a way or excuse to share with friends and family.”How it works is like this: the person who “ceba el mate,” or prepares it, is the first one to take a taste. After that, this person begins passing the mate to those next to him or her, who give it back to that main person to prepare again for those next in the circle. When you say “thanks” after sipping, it means you don’t want to drink anymore. For this reason, it’s important not to thank everyone each time you take a sip, but only once you’ve had enough.
Mate can either be taken bitter or sweet. For first-timers, I would recommend adding some sugar or honey, as the herbs can be quite pungent if you’re not used to it. Moreover, being one of the last to sip it can also help to take out some of the bitterness, as by then the hot water has taken away some of the flavor’s intensity.
During my first time trying it, I added sugar to help ease the bitterness. While the first few tastes were hard to swallow, once you get used to it the flavor is actually quite nice. Aside from sharing, there are other reasons people enjoy drinking mate. For one, many locals in Argentina find the drink delicious. Additionally, it’s a cheap way of “having a drink” for a long period of time with friends. And for those on a diet or having digestion issues, mate is said to be a diuretic. For the best mate, I’ve heard from many locals that Rosamonte (pictured above) is the best brand.