Drinking Mate with the Argentines

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Yerba Mate and gourd from which mate tea is drunkThere is nothing that is more traditional and representative of an Argentinean than the Mate. Mate is the traditional tea and drink of Argentina and a huge part of their culture. Regardless of what part of the country you are visiting, or what time of year you are there, you will inevitably see mate drinkers scattered along the way.

The tea itself may take some getting used to at first, but I would be cautious to turn down an offer to share a mate with someone. To the Argentineans it is more than an offer of a drink to quench your thirst, but also an offer of friendship, of acceptance, and maybe even a test of your open-mindedness to their culture.

Yerba Mate is an herb that grows with green leaves which are picked and dried to enjoy this drink. For a traditional mate, one needs the yerba mate which is the actual plant, the gourd which is a small cup like item that is used to drink out of, and the bombilla. The bombilla looks like a long straw that can be made out of wood or silver with a filtering mechanism on the end. When the Argentineans began drinking mate they did not have a filter and had to continually spit out the leaves. But since that time, they have had many years to practice and perfect their mate drinking and with the bombilla they are now able to enjoy the drink without worrying about choking on a yerba leaf. Each one of these items can be found from the simplest of simple, to the most ornate and stylistic one can imagine.

The type of yerba mate one uses can also vary. It can be a traditional bitter blend that is common among the Argentine gauchos, a mixed blend with additional flavors such as lemon and mint, or a sweetened blend that is favored in the northern regions of Argentina. Occasionally you will see someone adding sugar, honey, or even a small amount of juice to the yerba for a sweeter version. And depending upon the time of year, and temperatures, the mate may be served hot or cold. The yerba mate is placed within the gourd before adding hot water to soak in the flavor of the leaves and is then filtered out with the bombilla.

Drinking Mate in the freezing cold AndesKeep in mind that there are informal rules that should also be followed when sharing a mate. The yerba is placed within the cup and everyone drinks out of the same bombilla. This in itself is a good display of acceptance among the drinkers. After the hot water is added, the first person drinks all of the tea in the mate before returning it. When sampling it for the first time, you may be included to take a small sip and hand it back; however, to really please the server you should finish all of the tea in the gourd. Don’t ever be shy to create that sucking sound as the mate is emptied as well. This sound is like the sight of a clean plate after a chef prepares a big dinner. It is a compliment to the server as you will see with the big smile stretched across their face. To finish off your part of the ritual you must then return the mate to be refilled with the nearby kettle or water thermal that they always have on hand. Everyone will have an opportunity to drink a mate and then it will be returned to you. This process continues until the yerba mate has lost all of its flavor or everyone is finished.

It is important to know that there are also signals in the mate sharing. When passing it back to the mate filler, it should be transferred hand to hand. If one places the mate on the table, it is a sign that they are satisfied, and do not want any more. The sharing process is what makes it an intimate and friendly process and also a gathering mechanism to get to know others better. It is not uncommon to sit around a table for hours on end sharing a mate with someone. In a sense you are not only sharing a tea, but also a part of one another’s lives.

Of course, if you really do not enjoy the mate and just the thought of it makes your stomach queasy, the Argentineans will understand. As I mentioned before, it is not the mate itself, but what it symbolizes that is important. So instead, grab your own drink, have a seat and share a conversation with that person to show them you appreciate their friendship and would also like to know them better.

Regardless of what part of Argentina you are traveling in, you are guaranteed to encounter the mate at some point in your trip. I was fortunate to share a mate with Argentines I met in the peaks of the Andes mountains, on a bus to see the whales in Peninsula Valdes, in a hostel in Puerto Iguazu, and countless other locations. I have come to love the mate – not only the flavor, but also the symbolism behind it. What a great way to share ones culture and to express gratitude for ones companionship.


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Anthony on July 24, 08

I visited Resistencia, Argentina about 7 years ago. I was there for two weeks and Yerba Mate was EVERYWHERE! Women, men AND children drinking the stuff. Was an amazing visit I had there and I was introduced to Mate for the first time and it was love at first sip! I share the story of my introduction to Yerba Mate on my website here: YerbaMateDrinker

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