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Yerba Mate - National Drink of Argentina

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The national beverage of Argentina (in addition to being popular elsewhere in South America), yerba mate is a sort of tea, similar in appearance to green tea. Its popularity has also spread to far-flung locations such as the Middle East, especially among the Druze communities. Yerba means 'herb' and mate1 refers to the actual drink and the vessel in which it is traditionally served.

Yerba mate has also been known by many other names:

  • Erva mate
  • Congonha
  • Paraguay cayi
  • Paraguay tea
  • Jesuit's tea
  • St Bartholomew's tea
  • Hervea
  • K'kiro
  • Caminu
  • Kali chaye
  • Erveira
  • Hervea
  • Erva-verdadeira
  • Matéteestrauch

The drink is made from the leaves of Ilex paraguayiensis — otherwise known as Argentinian holly, as it is related to the holly family. These plants can grow to 15 - 20m high, though they are often kept pruned to 4 - 8m high. They are native to Argentina and other nearby countries, such as Brazil and Paraguay. The leaves are carefully harvested at a certain time by gatherers called yerbatros or tarrafeiros. The leaves are roasted briefly over a fire to preserve the green colour and add a slightly smoky flavour, dried, crushed and then finally packaged and sold. Mate with added flavours, along with various varieties of blends and textures, are available.

To some, yerba mate is possibly an acquired taste. It has a distinctive flavour different from other teas that has been (unaffectionately) likened to grass.

Making Mate

Instead of a teapot, mate is traditionally made in a decorative gourd with three legs attached to the bottom to prevent tipping, also known as a mate. The variety of gourd used, Lagenaria vulgaris, is available in all shapes, sizes and colours. Mate is drunk using a special straw called a bombilla. These are now generally made of metal and have a strainer inside to filter the loose leaves. Disposable bombillas are also available.

The method of preparing mate deviates from the usual ground rule of making tea, which is that you always use boiling water. This rule usually applies mostly to black teas. Mate, along with green tea and oolong, specifically calls for just hot water. Boiling water will leave the mate bitter.

When serving mate in a group, the ritual is to put the loose leaves in the gourd, fill with hot water and pass it around to people present. They all drink from the gourd, using the same bombilla. This is a sign of friendship. When the gourd is emptied, it is filled again with more hot water. The leaves hold enough potency to last several refills.

If this sounds unhygienic due to the shared bombilla, or too much trouble due to having to invest in the right equipment, don't despair. Though not traditional, you can also make mate in a teapot or even a coffee mug, as mate leaves are sold in teabags, too.

Mate is usually served hot and unsweetened, though some people favour it cold, with sweetener or with milk.

In Argentina, mate is consumed by nearly everyone, everyday, throughout the entire day. However, mate is never drunk during mealtimes.

Health Benefits

Like all teas, mate is reputed to carry many health benefits. In Argentina, it traditionally has been and still is used for medicinal purposes. Mate has now caught on in the Western world and is a popular 'health food' or holistic medicine.

However, scientific research has found that mate contains tannins, which when consumed at high temperatures and excessively can lead to cancer in the upper aerodigestive tract. This has hardly diminished the amount of consumption of mate in South America. Mate remains on the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) GRAS list (generally regarded as safe).

Mate was long believed to be free of caffeine. As it turns out, it contains about half as much as coffee. However, this caffeine supposedly dissipates quickly. This makes it reasonable to drink shortly before bedtime, especially as it is reported to aid sleeplessness. Further benefits of mate include:

  • It is an appetite suppressant, aiding in dieting and weight control.
  • It aids digestion.
  • It builds your immune system.
  • It can help relieve stress or anxiety, though this is common to any tea.
  • It is a mild laxative.
  • It helps burn fat.
  • It contains flavinoids, or antioxidants.
  • It boosts your energy.
1Pronounced MAH-tay or MAH-teh.

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