Mate, the national drink of Argentina


Mate across S. America
Just as we love our lattes, the Argentines go for mate in a big way. The drink is also popular in Uruguay, Chile, southern Brazil and Bolivia as well as in Paraguay where drinking it chilled (called terere) is popular. Brazil produces a toasted version called cha that is sold in bags and though flavorful, lacks the bitterness that characterizes mate prepared the traditional way.

The mateline contained in mate provides a stimulating effect similar to that of caffeine but without the jitters or stomach upset. The brew is rich in antioxidants. Though science may not support all of its claims, mate is said to reduce blood pressure, fight cancer, enhance performance and aid sleep. Some swear by it as an herbal remedy for weight loss and as a colonic.

Origins, a South American Holly
The origins of the word mate, or yerba mate as it is also called, are indigenous. The plant is a South American holly that grows in hot humid conditions found in the river valleys of northeastern Argentina and its eastern border countries. Not all mate tastes the same. The growing region, soil and climate conditions as well as how it is harvested gives mate a range of tastes. Growing mate in the shade increases its nutrients.

The drink has been around for centuries. In their diaries, sixteenth century Spanish explorers called it Paraguay tea when they first saw the Guarani Indians drinking the beverage and noted the stimulating effect it appeared to produce. For the same reason, Argentina's Jesuits sought to ban mate, believing it to be addictive. After determining that laborers worked harder with mate than they did without, the Jesuits rethought their philosophy, and by the late 1600s, the Order itself was growing the crop on plantations. The drink became known as Jesuit tea. Cultivation decreased after the Spanish expelled the Jesuits from the colonies, but the beverage's popularity continued to grow among the new settlers. Charles Darwin was partial to it.

Mate and Tango are to Argentinians as Whisky and The Fling are to the Scots
As tango is more than a dance to Argentines, so too, mate is more than a drink. It is a convivial beverage served in a seasoned gourd, passed around the table and sipped through a communal metal straw called a bombilla. To turn down mate as it comes your way would be considered odd behavior indeed. As a solo drink, mate is not as common, though one does occasionally see a porteno on a street corner sipping from an elegant mate cup.

Take away some Argentinian memories
The container and the beverage go by the same name. For visitors who like to do as the Romans, mate is easy to find. It shows up on the menu of any restaurant that serves coffee. A pot of hot (not boiling) water is brought to the table along with the mate. Water is poured over the leaves, allowed to steep a couple of minutes, and then the mixture is stirred. Refilling the cup keeps the brew hot and flavorful. With enough sugar, the bitterness of the potion can be cut considerably.

Whether or not you decide to give up your caffeine habit for mateline, the emblematic mate cups makes a perfect souvenir of an Argentina tour. Some are polished, covered with leather or decorated with silver filigree and are sold in many Buenos Aires shops as well as being found in abundance at the city's street fairs, ranging in price from $5 to over a hundred dollars. At the Sunday San Telmo neighborhood street fair, one can find reasonable deals on pricey antique varieties. If your travels take you to Gualeguaychu in Argentina's Entre Rios Province, you may visit El Patio del Mate factory where gourds from the calabash tree are cured, dyed and decorated to make mate cups.