Drinking yerba mate, a loose leaf tea, is a custom started by the gauchos of South America. Gauchos are Patagonian cowboys that tend cattle throughout the countryside in Chile and Argentina. After a long day of work, Gauchos gather around the campfire and share a cup of mate. This is a tradition that continues in much of South America today: friends and family sit together every day to share mate, talk about life, discuss politics, or to complain about the weather.
Image from the Columbus Memorial Library (OAS) Photograph Collection, 1950
Yerba mate is very similar to loose-leaf green tea. To prepare mate, you will need the cup or gourd, called the mate, the straw (bombilla), a thermos of warm water, and the yerba mate. The preparation and sharing of mate is ritualistic and comes with its own set of unspoken rules.
If you join to share in this tradition, there are a few customs to keep in mind:
- One person is designated as the server: they will hold the thermos of hot water and prepare the mate
- The water is not boiling…it is at the point just before boiling. You don’t want to burn the mate or your mouth!
- The server takes the first cup and then passes the mate around the circle clockwise to the next drinker
- The next drinker finishes the whole cup and passes it back to the server; continue in this fashion with each cupful, working around the circle
- It is considered offensive by some to touch or move around the straw, or bombilla
- When you are finished sharing, say “Thanks” or “Gracias” when you pass the mate back to the server. This lets them know that this was your last turn
Mate has a very herbal, earthy flavor. Yerba is an acquired taste…the first sip you have might surprise you. Some people like to add sugar to their mate, taking a “mate dulce,” and some prefer “mate amargo” without sugar. If mate is too bitter for your taste, try it with a little bit of sugar.
My Dad trying mate for the first time….it was definitely an “acquired taste” for him
If you get your own mate gourd, you will need to cure it before beginning to drink mate from it. Fill it about ¾ of the way with mate and pour in water. Let it steep for a day so the gourd absorbs the flavor. After a day, you can rinse it out and enjoy! You should never wash your mate out with soap. This will ruin the flavor.
Sharing a mate is a deep rooted tradition that flows into everyday life in many places in South America. If you have a chance to visit, be sure to give it a try!