Comida Porteño: Yerba Mate


We left you wondering in the previous two posts, what is this yerba mate all about? Your wait is over.  This is the traditional way of beginning a meal in Argentina, a gathering of friends around a shared gourd of brewed yerba mate.  Chris and Diana brought back a large bag of prepared (cleaned, “sin palo” (“without sticks”)) yerba mate from Argentina,

yerba mate pack

along with a beautiful ceramic gourd and a traditional stainless steel straw (bombilla), which we passed around and took sips  until the brew was too bitter.mate bowl and strawIt had a pleasing, grassy, green tea-like taste, and was a nice way of centering ourselves before sitting down to dinner.

Chris did a little more research into the drinking of yerba mate and shared it with us:

  1. Get yerba mate. While in BA we brought home a bag we purchased from a local grocery store. Yerba mate seems to be available everywhere and can be found in any convenience or grocery store. The yerba mate section was impressive, taking up a good portion of an entire aisle with many different brands, sizes and styles (similar to a coffee section at a grocery store in the US. As “novices”, we were told to get yerba mate sin palo (without sticks) which only contains the leaves and is less bitter. We bought the smallest bag (500g) by brand Taragui. Note: we were told to put in our checked luggage on our flight home so that we wouldn’t get hassled by security or customs given its similar appearance to a certain illegal green leafy plant.
  2. Get gourd (also called a mate). Traditionally, this is a hollowed out gourd but also saw many different types including more modern styles. We purchased a contemporary ceramic mate from a local store called Nobrand that also sells hip T-shirts with cool graphic prints.
  3. Get bombilla (pronounced bom-bee-ja) which is the special metal straw used for drinking the mate. It has a bulbous end with tiny holes that acts as a filter to keep you from sucking up the leaves.

Preparation adapted from WikiHow.

Mate (pronounced mah-teh) is a drink made by steeping dried leaves from the yerba mate plant in hot water. It was the Guarani Indians of South America who first discovered the rejuvenating qualities of yerba mate and now it’s enjoyed in Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, parts of Brazil, Chile, eastern Bolivia, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. It tastes somewhat like green tea, with hints of tobacco and oak.

A gourd being used for the first time should be cured, or else the first few drinks from it might be a little on the bitter side. Curing removes the soft inner tissues of the gourd and “seasons” the inside with the flavor of mate. Fill the gourd with boiling water almost to the metal rim (or to the top if there is no metal rim) and let it sit for 10 minutes. Then softly scrape the membrane out of the gourd with a metal spoon under running water (but do not remove the stem in the center). Finally, put the cleaned-out gourd in the sunlight for a day or two until it is completely dry.]

  1. Pack the dry, loose yerba mate into the gourd just over half full.
  2. Place your hand on the top of the half-filled gourd and turn it upside-down. Shake the more powdery leaves to the top of the gourd with several flicks of the wrist. This helps to ensure that you don’t suck in the powdery leaves through the bombilla later. Repeat as needed.
  3. Insert the bombilla into the gourd so that the tip is at the bottom.
  4. Pour in hot water. (Some sites tell you to start with cold water first to soak the leaves but we went with the faster version and just started with hot). Pour in enough water just up to the level of the leaves. It is important to use hot water (70–80 °C, 160–180 °F) but not boiling, as boiling water will make the mate bitter.
  5. Drink from the bombilla. We were told that you are not supposed to touch the bombilla (except with your lips of course!)
    1. Newcomers to mate tend to jiggle the bombilla and stir the herb. Resist this temptation, or you’ll end up clogging the bombilla. Drink the entire mate when it’s handed to you, don’t just take a small sip and pass it back. You should hear a sound similar to when drinking soda with straw.
    2. In a group, the first brew is traditionally taken by the person who prepares the mate. If you are the server, drink the mate until there is no water left, then refill the gourd with hot water and pass it to the next person, sharing the same bombilla. Keep refilling the gourd as it’s passed around (one brew per person) until it loses its flavor (called lavado in Spanish, because the flavor is “washed out”); it should take ten refills, more or less (depending on the quality of the mate). To signal that you don’t want any more mate, give thanks to “el cebador” (the server). Remember only to give thanks after your last mate. Once you give thanks it will be understood that you do not want anymore.

Additional info and tips (via WikiHow)

  1. In Argentina, mate is also sold in teabag form (called mate cocido) so it can be steeped like other teas (but still not in boiling water).
  2. You can also treat the yerba mate like any other loose tea; steep it in hot water (the amount depends on how strong you want it to be, you’ll need to experiment) and then filter out the leaves before drinking.
  3. If you have a coffee french press, you can prepare the mate with it.
  4. You can also make mate in a standard automatic coffee maker. Just put the mate where you would normally put the coffee grounds.
  5. In some parts of South America, the peel of citrus fruits (especially oranges) is added to the herb, or, alternatively, it is brewed with nearly scalded milk.
  6. For a sweeter drink, you can add some sugar or honey to the gourd before pouring in the hot water.
  7. You can also add Fresh Mint leaves, or other aromatic plants directly in the water.
  8. In the summer, try making “tereré” by replacing the hot water with ice-cold water or lemonade. For tereré, it is better to use a small metal cup or mason jar instead of a gourd.
  9. You can also add Chamomile (Egyptian has strong taste), Mint leaves, Star Anise in the Yerba Mate.
  10. Mate contains caffeine; though generally less than tea and coffee.

This post is part of the second Spicebox Supperclub, the Comida Porteño con Sabor Latino, celebrating the food and drink of Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Come back next week for (finally) some food– empanadas!


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