By Guest Author: Amita Raval
Have you tried mate (pronounced MA-TAY) yet?’ my excitable Argentinean hostess asked on my first night in South America. When I replied that I had not, she bustled about preparing the drink and finally handed me a strange piece of equipment: a small cup with a woven cover on three wire legs with a metal straw sticking out of it. I took a tentative sip, burnt my tongue and screwed up my face at the bitter taste. This is what they all drink here? I thought. What I did not yet know, of course, was that she had made the water too hot – and that changes everything.
I have since learnt much more about Ilex Paraguarensis, better known as yerba mate, a traditional tea drunk in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil. Indeed there is much to learn, from the myth of its creation to the art of serving it well, which herbs complement the flavour, and not ever to touch the straw. By the time I moved back to England, I had to find a source of yerba mate as soon as possible in order to continue the habit.
Perhaps its greatest appeal, however, is its long-standing communal aspect: it is rare to be so busy that you cannot take a break for a quick mate when offered one, and you even drink from the same vessel as everyone else. Having shared mate with countless Argentineans, I wonder, could there be a more sociable drink?
The origins of mate: the myth
Once upon a time two goddesses Así (moon) and Aria (pink twilight cloud) wanted to see the earth from a new perspective, and so decided to visit disguised as women. They were walking through a forest exclaiming with delight at all they saw – when the deep growl of a tiger rose from the bushes. The terrified women ran; the tiger pursued, teeth and claws gleaming.
Suddenly they were intercepted by a woodcutter, who killed the tiger and invited the women to his home nearby to recover from the shock. Así and Aria were astonished by his meagre existence alone in the forest with his wife and daughter (upon whom the woodcutter doted); and even more amazed by their generosity, offering to share every last scrap of food in their store with the strangers.
Back in the sky that evening, Así mused to Aria, ‘I should like to reward the family for their hospitality.’
‘I agree,’ Aria replied, ‘perhaps a gift for the daughter? For that will please the parents too.’
Así thought that a good idea; that very night she descended to earth in secret to plant some magic seeds; Aria shed a little rain to help them grow.
The next morning the woodcutter and his family rushed outside to stare at a mass of white-flowering plants the like of which they had never seen. There stood Así and Aria, smiling. ‘You shared all you had with us when we were in trouble; now you shall be rewarded. This plant is yerba mate, the drink of hospitality, to be shared with strangers, friends and travellers alike. Your daughter shall be its guardian.’
They showed the girl how to turn the plant into a delicious tea. When her parents passed away, she travelled the land, teaching people how to make mate, the drink which still represents hospitality, bringing friends and strangers together to this day.
How to make mate
Making mate is both an art and a ceremony which can feature several times in any given day – and each South American will have a slightly different method from the next. I met a man whose sister travelled halfway across Argentina to learn the art of mate in the province of Misiones (where Ilex Paraguariensis grows). Was it worth it? I asked, to which he replied with absolute certainty, ‘Well, her mate is always perfect.’
The following technique should cover the basics at least:
Heat enough water to fill your thermos – but make sure it does not reach boiling point: the ideal temperature is 70-80°C. Too hot and the leaves turn bitter then lose their flavour; too cold and, well, they say a man once killed his wife by giving her a cold mate – for which reason the server always drinks the first mate him/herself.
Fill your mate gourd to about three-quarters with yerba. Covering the mouth with one palm, shake and tip the gourd so the yerba is piled against one side, leaving a gap on the other.
Pour a little warm water into the gap (again to prevent the yerba from burning and tasting bitter), and insert the straw in the same place.
Serve by pouring hot water into the gap (which will eventually fill as the water soaks through the yerba). Each person drinks their serving then returns the mate back to the server to top up with water and pass to the next in the circle. Do not move the straw, as this also releases the flavour too quickly.
Grow accustomed to carrying your mate, yerba and thermos everywhere you go. Discard used yerba in a verge, gutter or flowerbed as convenient.
The health benefits of mate
One of my favourite responses to the unusual flavour came from a friend who said dubiously, ‘It tastes like it’s good for you.’ In fact he was quite right. Some health benefits of sipping mate regularly are believed to include:
More antioxidants than green tea, as well as a range of vitamins and cholesterol-lowering nutrients, meaning it has a positive effect on cardiovascular health.
Aids digestion by promoting production of bile and gastric acids; also keeps the colon clean.
Caffeine content balanced by amino-acids and other nutrients, meaning the drink can enhance mental clarity without many of the side-effects of coffee.
Curbs the appetite and stimulates the metabolism, making it an ideal alternative for those prone to snacking, or a tool for weight control.
It can also be mixed with other beneficial herbs, such as mint, lemon verbena, or chamomile.
Mate is not just a beverage. It is a ceremony, a gathering point, a tradition upheld since the indigenous people of South America first drank it from their Calabaza gourds. Safe to say, not everybody takes to it straight away. Perhaps some would be more comfortable with the less popular mate cocido (which comes in teabags) due to its more familiar appearance and weaker hit of the properties of Ilex Paraguariensis.
I have also commonly been asked, ‘So what are you smoking?’ or ‘Does that stuff get you high?’ by those unfamiliar with the drink. Naturally the answer is no – and yet a few well-served mates, whether as an accompaniment to work or a good book, or passed round a circle of friends or new acquaintances, never fail to put me in a good mood.
About the Author:
Amita Raval is a writer and storyteller dedicated to exploring our extraordinary universe through the genres of mythology and magical realism. She is also a Reiki master and experienced meditation guide, seeking to balance spirituality with science. Her books Mercury’s Days and A Dream-Teller’s Tales: Thoughts on Creative Dreaming are available on Amazon kindle.
Get updates about her work at www.facebook.com/amita.raval.author