Walk down any street in any town in Argentina at about 3:00 in the afternoon and you’ll see someone pouring hot water from a thermos into a gourd, drinking it through a straw, then passing it to a friend who repeats the process.
They’re drinking yerba mate (pronounced mah-tay), a bitter herb that’s high and caffeine and is brewed like tea. It’s usually consumed from a hollowed-out gourd, though some people drink it from tiny metal mugs. You drink it through a metal straw-like utensil (called a bombillo) that has a filter on the end so the mate leaves can’t get through. It’s almost always shared with someone else. Drinking mate is a social activity and offering mate to a stranger isn’t uncommon.
Everyone drinks it. Teenagers sit in parks passing around a gourd, just as old ladies share it on porches. It’s the perfect way to pass siesta, the break everyone goes on from 12-5 pm.
After two weeks in Argentina, we couldn’t resist the urge to try mate for ourselves. We bought a gourd and bombillo from a store in Rosario, then headed to the market for mate and a thermos. We googled “how to drink mate” and read that you have to cure a mate gourd before you use it, so we waited impatiently for two days while our gourd cured.
When it was finally ready, we were nervous. We’d read all about how mate has an incredibly strong flavor and is an acquired taste. We brewed our mate and I went first. Here are our unexaggerated, gut reactions to our first tastes of mate:
But we didn’t give up. We found that adding sugar, as some Argentines do, helped with the bitterness. And of course the more water you add, the weaker it gets, so we started watering down our mate a bit more. We shared mate with others on a few occasions, with people who worked at hostels and a tour guide. Elizabeth predicts that mate, with its high caffeine content and herbal benefits, will become a trend in the US. I like to think that I eventually acquired a taste for it, even though that first sip always has more bite than I expect.
Even so, I’m glad we gave yerba mate a try. It really is the ultimate Argentine experience.