I know I talk about drinking mate all the time (I talk about it all the time and drink it all the time), and many of you who have known me forever have either seen me have my mate ritual or have participated with me. In essence, mate is an herbal tea, more accurately, an infusion. I could write about the wonderful properties of yerba mate, an herb that grows in the semi-tropical climates of Southern Brazil , Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina. I could write about how impressed the Spanish conquistadores were to find the mate drinking South American aborigines were very vigorous and healthy. I could write about how yerba mate is replacing coffee, tea, and green tea as the new energy drink of the century; you get the high without the bad side effects.  

I could provide numbers to prove mate is healthy and good for you, but I won’t. I’ll just give you a basic rules of mate serving and drinking etiquette, and I’ll finish with what this drink means to me.

First you need the right tools: a mate (the container) which is a small cup. It can be plastic, metal, a gourd, carved wood, a hollowed out cow horn, etc. Just a container that won’t leak and that won’t be too hot to the touch. The mate can be very ornate or very simple. Some people (myself included) note the difference of flavor if you drink from a plastic mate opposed to a wood one. Personally, I love gourds and wooden mates.

You also need a bombilla, which is basically a straw with a tiny strainer at the end to filter the yerba. NOBODY likes to end up with tiny bits of yerba in their mouths. Those little bits can get stuck in your throat and itch like crazy.

Last but not least, you need yerba, the actual herb. There are all kinds of yerba, with dust, without dust, strong, soft, with digestive herbs, Uruguayan, Brazilian, Argentine, traditional, wild harvested, organic. People usually like the yerba they’re used to. I don’t like my mate too strong; I get a stomachache if the tea ends up too bitter. 

Optional: sugar, herbs like chamomile and peppermint, orange or lemon zest, you name it. I like my mate clean, occasionally I’ll add peppermint leaves from my own garden.

Once you have prepared your mate, you add the water, which will be hot, but not boiling. You don’t want to burn your yerba. The cebador (the one that prepares and distribute the mate) drinks the first one which will be very bitter. The flavor softens as the yerba gets diluted. If there’s a group of people (a ronda), the cebador will pass it to his right. Each person takes a turn drinking from the mate, and the person taking a turn drinks all of it. No one likes to drink left over mate from the person before (I know, we’re all drinking with the same straw already! But it’s true; you drink all of your mate). When the person is done, the mate returns to the cebador who will repeat the process with all the members of the ronda. Remember, it’s usually family and close friends who share mate. It’s no fun to drink with 20 other people, besides being unhygienic, no one likes to wait half an hour for a mate. 

One important rule: don’t touch the bombilla; if you do, the mate will be ruined and the yerba will lose its flavor. Don’t touch the bombilla!

Drinking mate is the opposite of watching TV; it makes you talk with your mate drinking companions, or if you’re drinking solo, it makes you think. I’ve always studied or read with my my mate by my side; it helps me relax.

Families drink mate together in the morning, or in the afternoon, or after meals. When friends come visit, you offer mate to them. My best friend G and I can drink gallons while we talk. If you go to a home where you don’t know the family, don’t be offended if they don’t offer you a mate, but be prepared to accept if they do offer. Rejecting mate is like rejecting food, a personal affront to the hosts. In my family we’re very particular with whom we drink mate. I remember when I was a teenager, my next door neighbor, who had known me all my life, finally invited me to drink mate with him. My brother was in shock, but to me it meant that this neighbor had finally “adopted” me as his granddaughter. I loved listening to his stories as a young boy working in the fields and the factories. 

In our Argentine culture, the sign that you’re finally an adult is when you prepare your own mate, just for yourself, instead of the whole family. I don’t remember when I made my own mate for the first time. Was I worried, happy, stressed, in love? I don’t know, but I do know it must have been a special occasion. When Jeff and I got married, my 4 best friends from Argentina sent me a super nice mate set. It’s not a proper home without your very own mate set. 

Mate is present in every Argentine home, be it poor or rich, Canaya or Leprosa (reference to Rosario’s football teams), Socialists, Capitalists, young, old, ignorant, college professors, doctors, the president, writers, musicians, group of students, nuns and priests … the list can go on forever. 

Mate means you put up with the most horrible, watered down mate just because the conversation is good, not the mate. It means you take turns, you drink while the other talks and vice-versa; you at least say “Thank You” once a day, when you are done drinking mate for now. 

Mate is not only the herbal tea, the health benefits, the ritual; mate is companionship, conversation, confidences, part of our Argentiness. Our neighboring countries drink mate too; especially Uruguayans who are also known as “Panza Verdes” (“Green Bellies”), and mate means similar things to them. 

I love it when my kids drink with me; I let them drink it when the yerba is watered down and cool. Once they get a taste of it, they’ll never let it go. My kids even have a play “mate set” instead of a “tea set”, and they’ve invited me to many a nice mate ronda, complete with philosophical questions and conclusions and all. Very “Argentine.”

Even my very boricua Jeff has become addicted to mate, but he still only drinks it with me; it’s our special time to talk at night or even work in our individual projects, joined by this give and take of mate drinking. 

We have mate at home, in the parks, at the beach, on the cruises we’ve been; we’ve taking it to our trip to Europe, with a well marked package, mind you, in case people think it’s an illegal substance or something. We have mate during long drives; I take my mate things when we go to holiday dinners to our extended family’s homes. 

Mate is an essential part of my food storage; I can do without many things, but not my yerba. When our prophet, President Hinckley visited Argentina back in ’96, we were all a little anxious he would say something about this herbal tea. We all sighed with relief when he didn’t. And I know for a fact even several of the General Authorities and Area Authorities were relieved too. 

Mate drinking is as much a part of me as Rosario Central, Argentina’s football team, Soda Stereo, or the smell of jasmine in the spring. Can’t imagine my life without it.

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2 responses to “I know it’s long overdue: What is Mate?”

  1. Crystal says:

    Thank you for that wonderful explanation. What a great tradition to have with your family.

  2. Cristina says:

    I love Mate and did I tell you that Marcelo drinks it every day at work because of a good friend from Argentina that has all his set. And you already knew that Matias drinks it with me but last week Sophia tried it for the first time and she loved it. I was laughing when she was asking me for more in her peculiar way, ma ma ma

Yamile Saied Mendez

Yamile (sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is a fútbol-obsessed Argentine-American, Picture Book, Middle Grade, and Young Adult author.

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