Argentina’s weird and wonderful world of yerba mate

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If you want to make an Argentine laugh, tell him that mate is a sparkling, berry-flavored energy drink that comes in a yellow can. Yeah, you know that brand I’m talking about.

In Argentina, where mate (pronounced “mah-tay”) is the best part of waking up, the beverage stays true to its original form: a hot, bitter, caffeinated herbal soup prepared inside a little hollowed out gourd that gets slurped up through a metal straw called a “bombilla.” Sound complicated? You’ll get used to it. Especially once you realize having mate is like making a cool science experiment for breakfast. 

Prepared and imbibed according to very specific rules, mate is basically an endless cup of coffee — drinking it means constantly refilling the gourd with hot water from your ever-present thermos, or kettle if you don’t have a thermos. (Gas stations in Argentina actually provide a hot water dispenser so you can refill your thermos when you’re taking a road trip.) And this diuretic drink isn’t just a great boost for your workday productivity — it’s also the local go-to hangover cure. (Yes, it really works!)

Besides regular morning and hangover mornings, some Argentinos slurp on mate all day long while at work, while others have it just during the late afternoon “merienda” hour (tea time), with a required accompaniment of freshly baked fakturas. Fakturas can be described as an array of irresistible, fluffy, very sweet pastries from your local panaderia, like the classic medialuna (looks like a croissant but has a sticky, sugary glaze). Mate is also important for those nights when you’re about to go out with friends for drinks, dinner or dancing, but you just don’t have any energy left. Mate to the rescue! Just think of it as the healthier, tastier version of a Red Bull.

But mate is a very versatile beverage — you can also drink it cold in the summer. Instead of pouring hot water into your gourd of yerba mate, you pour cold water or orange juice. This is called “terere.” Want to add even more zest to your mate? Add some herbs to the mate mix, like mint leaves or verbana. Some people even put a few drops of sugar or honey right into the yerba mate to offest the bitterness. To me this sounds like blasphemy of course, but that’s because I love bitter flavors! 😉

The thing is, if you are a tourist in Buenos Aires looking to try mate, you will rarely find mate served in cafes because it’s such an intimate ritual, meant to be shared with friends. Feel free to ask the waitress at a cafe if there’s a chance to try mate — who knows, he or she may possibly whip out their own mate kit from behind the counter and share it with you.

But you’ll always have the “mate bar” for an authentic mate experience. If you plan to spend a day in Tigre anyhow, be sure to stop by the adorable but seriously interesting Museo del Mate that features a mate bar. No need to buy museum tickets to access the mate bar.

But what do you think?

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