Mate – it’s everywhere in Argentina. The entire culture of the region is defined by that very commodity. Hot water dispensers are in every store, baskets and leather cases are carefully designed to accommodate the mate paraphernalia. Mate is a way of life.
At its most basic level, mate (pronounced mah-tay) is tea. But in reality it’s much more – it’s a drink, it’s a means of communication, it’s a method of relaxation, it’s life itself.
Mate starts with the mate and bombilla. The mate is the cup – traditionally made of a gourd, but nowadays made of just about any material one can imagine. The bombilla is a straw – most often made of silver or another metal, although many times made of bamboo or other hollow wood. At one end of the bombilla are fine holes for the tea to enter, but not large enough to allow the penetration of the yerba.
The yerba (herb) is the crushed leaves and stems of a plant that grows naturally in the entire region. There are many variations of the yerba – including many mixed with chamomile or other herbal teas. An entire section of supermarkets is dedicated to yerba mate with dozens of brands available. Each person has their favorite.
Mate is served by the cebador (server) to the group. Mate is nearly always consumed as a group – maybe only two people or maybe a larger group. To be invited for mate is to be invited into a friendship.
To start the process the cebador fills the mate approximately half full with the yerba. Placing his hand over the opening, he’ll turn the cup over and lightly shake it in order to get the finer particles toward the opening of the mate. Very carefully, he’ll place the bombilla into the cup, wedging it toward the bottom into the courser parts of the yerba.
Hot (certainly hot, but not boiling) water is slowly added to the mate from a Thermos. Without touching the bombilla, the cebador drinks the first cup of mate until he hears a sucking sound from the straw.
He then refills the cup and passes it to the person on his right. That person, without touching the bombilla which would disrupt the yerba, drinks the next cup. When finished, he hands the mate back to the cebador without thanking him, who refills it for the next person.
Each member of group drinks cup after cup of mate until they’ve had enough. At that point, they’ll simply say, “Gracias” signaling they no longer want more. The cebador continues to serve the remaining members until everyone has had their fill.
Mate is consumed at all hours of the day, although most commonly in the morning and late afternoon. It’s served to adults and children alike. In short, it’s the way of life for Argentinians!