Mate (pronounced mattay) is the essential Argentine drink. All over the country, whenever groups of Argentines get together, they share a mate.
It’s an essential part of your trip to Argentina that you give it a go, at least once. It’s a bitter green tea made from the leaves of the yerba mate plant, Ilex paraguaiensis, and is mildly stimulating, less so than caffeine, and effective at ridding the body of toxins as well as being mildly laxative and diuretic. It was encouraged by the Jesuits as an alternative to alcohol and was grown in their plantations in the northeast of Argentina.
The mate container is traditionally made from a hollowed gourd, but can be made of wood or tin. There are also ornate varieties made to traditional gaucho patterns by the best silversmiths.
Dried yerba leaves are placed in the mate to just over half full and then the whole container is shaken upside down using a hand to prevent spillage. This makes sure that any excess powder is removed from the leaves before drinking. Hot water is added to create the infusion, which is then sipped through the bombilla, a perforated metal straw. One person in the group acts as cebador, trickling fresh hot water into the mate, having the first sip (which is the most bitter) and passing it to each person in turn to sip. The water must be at 80-82°C (just as the kettle starts to ‘sing’) and generally mate is drunk amargo (bitter) – without sugar. But add a little if it’s your first time, as the drink is slightly bitter. When you’ve had enough, simply say ‘gracias’ as you hand the mate back to the cebador, and you’ll be missed out on the next round.
If you’re invited to drink mate on your visit to Argentina, always accept, as it’s rude not to, and then keep trying: it might take a few attempts before you actually like the stuff. To share a mate is to be part of a very special Argentine custom and you’ll delight your hosts by giving it a go.