The national Argentinean drink that fascinates our visitors is mate (pronounced MAH-tay), a tea-like beverage made by brewing the dried leaves of yerba mate (Ilex Paraguarensis). It is also a popular practice in Uruguay, Paraguay, southern Chile, eastern Bolivia and southern Brazil. How is it made? The way to drink mate is by pouring hot water over the leaves in a small pot-like container usually made from a carved, dried gourd (see pictures). The infusion is sipped directly from the gourd with a bombilla, which is a metal straw with a strainer. Visitors are often surprised by the fact that when in a gathering we all drink from the same mate and share the same straw! But, traditionally, mate is shared with people you know, close friends and family. There is one person preparing each mate: “cebador”, who refills the gourd and passes it to the drinker to his or her right, who likewise drinks it all and passes the empty mate to the cebador. If the person says “thank you” at that moment, it means that he or she doesn’t want more mates. The cebador keeps serving mates to the rest of the people in a circle manner. Curiosly, mate it’s something that you don’t order in a café or restaurant. There are a few “mate bars” in Buenos Aires but it’s by far something made at home or even at work.
Mate is not only drunk for its unique flavor, it also represents a ritual of friendship and sharing that can liven up any gathering. Nowadays, mate is gaining popularity all over the world due to increasing health claims. I couldn’t find any scientific evidence, but mate is promoted as a rejuvenator, weight control aid, immune system booster, body cleanser, etc.
I want to share with you something beautiful that a famous morning radio show host Lalo about mate, here is the translation:
Mate is not a drink. Well, okay. It’s a liquid and enters the body through the mouth. But it’s not just a drink. In this country, nobody drinks mate because he’s thirsty. It’s more a custom, like scratching yourself. Mate is exactly the opposite of television: If you’re with someone, it makes you converse. If you’re alone, it makes you think. When someone arrives at your home, the first phrase spoken is “hola” and the second is “some mate?”
This is something that happens at all homes. At the homes of the rich and at the homes of the poor. It happens between gossiping women, between men either serious or immature. It happens between old folks in a geriatric centre and between teenagers while they study or get high. It’s the only thing that parents and kids share without fighting or confrontation.
Peronistas and Radicales have mate without question. In summer and in winter. It’s the only thing that makes us seem both the victim and the executioner; the good guy and the bad guy.
When you have a child, you begin to share mate with them when they ask for it. You give it to them just slightly warm, with lots of sugar, and they feel all grown up. You feel a massive pride when you tiny offspring begins to enjoy mate. Your heart comes out of your chest. Later, with time, children will decide for themselves if they’ll drink it bitter, sweet, very hot, Paraguayan-style, with orange peels, with sticks, with a drop of lemon.
When you meet someone for the first time, you share some mate. Someone may ask you, if you don’t know each other well, “Sweet or bitter?” You ought to respond, “However you drink it.”
The keyboards of Argentina are covered in yerba. Yerba is always available, in all homes. Always. In times of inflation, starvation, military dictatorships, democracy, in the times of our pests and damnifications. If some day, there is no yerba, a neighbour will have it and will offer it. No one is refused yerba.
Ours is the only country in the world where the decision to leave childhood behind and move into adulthood happens this way. Not putting on long pants, circumcision, university or moving away from your parents. Here, we begin to be grownup the day we feel the need to drink mate for the first time on our own. It’s not a coincidence.
The day a kid puts the kettle on and sips mate for the first time with no one else home, at that moment he’s discovered that he has a soul. Maybe he’s scared to death, or he’s deeply in love or something. But it’s not just any day. None of us remember the day we first had mate alone. But it must have been an important day for each of us. Internal revolutions were at work.
Mate is simply nothing more and nothing less than a demonstration of values…...
It’s the solidarity of sticking out through washed-out mates because the conversation is good. The conversation yes, the mate no.
It’s the respect of taking time to talk and to listen; you speak while the other drinks mate and the sincerity of saying, “Enough! Change the yerba now!”
It’s the friendship of that moment.
It’s the sensibility to boiling water.
It’s the affection of asking, stupidly perhaps, “it’s hot, right?”
It’s the modesty of the one who serves the best mate.
It’s the generosity of giving it to the end.
It’s the hospitality of the invitation.
It’s the justice of taking turns.
It’s the obligation of saying ‘thank you’, at least once a day.
It’s the ethical, frank and loyal attitude to get together, without pretensions of doing anything but sharing.
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