Mate 101: A (Brief) Introduction to Argentinian Mate
Your basic (outstandingly basic) guide to that Argentine tea infusion an airport security guard would probably mistake for weed.
If you’ve visited Argentina, chances are you’ve been offered mate more than you’ve heard the words boludo, Boquita and Fernández, which is saying a lot (and I mean a lot). If, on the other hand, you’ve never been properly introduced to this cultural heritage and ultimate herbal witchcraft, allow me to pave the way for you.
Mate, mateico, matienzo, amargo or verde (there’re as much uncalled-for nicknames as Bring It On sequels), is a caffeine-rich infused drink made by the infusion of dried leaves Argentinians carry around with them more than their IDs. A gourd made of wood, calabash (squash), stainless steel or silver, accompanied by a metal straw with a filter, that is usually shared with friends (or strangers) for people to joyfully exchange their saliva in the office or out in the green, all the while sucking the life out of that bombilla.
Constantly disputed between Argentina and Uruguay (along with torta frita — fried cake, and Gardel — a tango singer. FYI: there’s a reason the song isn’t called Mi Montevideo Querido in the first place. Hush, my Uruguayan friends, you've still got Jorge Drexler) mate dates back to the Guaraní natives in Paraguay (although they also inhabited other countries, such as Brazil), who used the dried leaves (yerba mate) as a drink, an offering to their Gods, and a currency in their exchanges with other prehistoric tribes.
Later (and to no one’s surprise) Spanish conquerors expropriated this local practice, disseminating its consumption to the Virreinato del Río de La Plata; a viceroyalty established in 1776 by Spain during its unapologetic colonization of Central and South America, integrated by the actual territories of Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia and Perú.
In conclusion, historically speaking, mate belongs to Paraguay. Paraguay 1 — Arenguay/Urutina 0.
Now that we’ve got the basics of Argentinian history (mildly) covered, I’ll proceed to explain the logistics behind the cebada (making of) of this sour, Marijuana-looking, thirst quencher. However, before diving in I need to make sure you use the right cut or yerba.
Generally speaking, cuts can be divided into three types: Argentine, Gaucho (drunk mainly in Brazil and Uruguay) and Paraguayan. What’s the difference between them? Their composition. Different cuts call for different types/quantities of hojas (leaves), polvo (dust) and palos (twigs). Since I’m from Argentina I’ll stick to the obvious: the Argentine cut. According to the greengrocer, my smart alec of an uncle-in-law and every Argentinian I know (plus memes) the best brands are Playadito, Unión and Cruz de Malta (I’m not gonna lie: all three taste the same to me, but that’s just because my knowledge on the maTer — I deserve horrible things — is at par with that of a 6-month-old toddler or a full-grown man from Lithuania. Just stay away from CBSé and you’ll be fine). Anyway, off to what’s important:
1. Fill a termo (flask) with hot water. Ideal range is between 70º and 80ºC (158º – 176ºF). “But why not boiling water?”– you may be wondering (or not). Boiling water will burn the yerba, washing away its properties and reducing its flavor.
2. Pour the yerba inside the gourd (three quarters full) and cover it with your free hand. Shake it up.
3. Now, tilt the gourd so that the yerba rests on one side and slowly pour some water. Once you’ve done this, place the bombilla (make sure to embed your straw diagonally, otherwise there’s a 110% chance it will clog).
4. Now that the fundamentals are covered, seal the deal by pouring more water until your gourd is full. Mind you, the first sips can be misleading (not to say undrinkable) so give it enough time to steep.
5. Mate is ready! If it’s too sour for your liking you can always add sugar. Lucky for you (and unlike my case) being a foreigner allows you to do so with total immunity.
This however, is just the beginning. Managing to (somehow) emulate the art of serving is just the tip of the iceberg and a skill any person with the slightest common sense-- except for me, can hone and master over time. Next comes the tough bit, the real deal-breaker, the litmus test: sipping on that bombilla.
As I mentioned above, mate is a social drink, meaning it’s strongly likely you’ll be consuming it among other people. Meaning you’ll have to share the same straw for the sake of the ritual. After passing through more hands than a Japanese subway pole, it’ll finally be your turn to step it up and become a true Argento. Bear in mind, though, that mate gourd will not arrive on its own. That bombilla in fact, will bring its own +1— a bread/lard biscuit/whatever-the-person-before-you-had-been-snacking-on crumb, your coworkers’ saliva, the saliva of the entire club they probably shagged over the weekend and (without doubt), Herpes. Master this aspect (cleaning the bombilla with your sleeve in front of everybody is a no-no. Be subtle and do so underneath the table) and you’ll be on your way to conquer Argentinians’ hearts.
In all seriousness, sharing a mate round is a warm-hearted and unique (if that) experience every person should try at least once. And no, don’t worry; you won’t end up getting Mononucleosis. Or will you?