David Fegan shares yerba mate with Buenos Aires locals and asks what their ‘national infusion’ means to them.
Mate (pronounced “ma-té”) is a traditional South American caffeine-rich infused drink, prepared by steeping dried leaves of yerba mate in hot water. It is defined by law as the national infusion of Argentina and is “a beverage that is as much of a staple in Argentine society as tea is in England”. On average, some 30 million Argentines consume 220 million kilograms of mate per year, which is roughly seven and a half kilograms of mate per person, per year. The famous Argentine presenter and journalist, Lalo Mir, wrote a poem called ‘Un Mate y un Amor’ (‘A Mate and a Love’), a pun on the famous song ‘Un Vestido y un Amor’ (‘A Dress and a Love’, by Fito Páez). Through this song, Mir makes tangible the significance of mate to Argentines:
“Mate is not a beverage. Well, yes. It’s a liquid and it enters through the mouth. But it is not a beverage… It’s more of a habit, like scratching.”
History of Mate
Mate was first consumed by the indigenous Guaraní people in parts of what is now Paraguay, as well as the Misiones Province of Argentina, southern Brazil, and parts of Uruguay and Bolivia. The Tupí people who lived in southern Brazil also contributed to the spread of mate, while European colonization in the Spanish colony of Paraguay in the late 16th century saw its consumption become even more widespread. In the 17th century, mate spread to Río de la Plata, and from there to Chile.
Industrialised at the end of the 19th century, mate is now a classic souvenir of Argentina and even has a museum dedicated to it in Tigre. It was the favoured drink of famous historical and political figure Che Guevara, and is an important part of the national Argentine economy.
How to Prepare the Mate
What you need:
El mate (the mate)
Bombilla (drinking straw)
El Termo con agua caliente (the thermos with hot water)
The Mate Experience
I shared mate with locals in Buenos Aires to learn about and experience this national habit, as well as to find out the significance of mate to them.
What is the significance of mate to you?
“Friendship, a connection with home wherever you are. No one would ever deny you a mate. It’s intimate as well as something you do with everyone. It’s generous.”
What is the significance for Argentines?
“It’s pretty much the same for all of us. Uruguayan’s drink it more frequently, they always have mate around. They typically drink it from bigger mates and can rest it on their arms.”
How often do you drink mate?
“Every day, many times, two to three times at the least. You say ‘gracias’ when you don’t want anymore.”
Does it keep you awake?
“Not for me, but some people say it has the same effect as caffeine.”
What is a typical mate experience for you?
“With friends to Palermo, or whenever I go with friends we take mate. At home I always have mate. On rainy days: TV and mate.”
When else do you have mate?
“If I see a mate, I go and ask for a mate. If I have had a long day and need it, not just to intrude, I go and ask and they always say yes.”
Do you take your mate with you?
“Yes! On a trip, not when I go out everyday. I took it with me when I went north.”
“There is only one person that is called the ‘cerbador’ (server). It is the one who puts water into the mate. And that’s the one that owns the termo. I mean, it’s not necessary that the termo owns to him, but he is the one that carries it and he is the only one that puts water in the mate, and if you are in a round of five, six, or seven people, he always puts water in the mate and when any person finishes with their mate they will give it back to the cerbador and he puts the water in the mate again.”
What does mate mean to you?
“Well, it’s like a way to share things. I mean, first it keeps you awake, that’s important because, I don’t know what it has, but it makes you be more awake. Then when it is cold, in winter it is good, because it is hot and also, yes, the most important thing is that you can share things. It’s like you contact the other people when you are drinking mate, you always make a round. For example, I drink mate during my university classes and I share mate with my friends, with my classmates or they share with me. We also buy some biscuits to eat while we are drinking. It is very common because you will find that any person in the society drinks mate, it’s not only divided into rich people or people that drink some drinks. Like for example, with alcohol, rich people drink better alcohol, poor people in general drink poor alcohol. Well, with mate, it’s like more equal. Every person drinks mate.”
And the rule is everybody shares?
“Yes. I mean, for someone that is not from Argentina or Uruguay that is not used to drinking mate it’s a bit weird that we share the mate without washing the pipe, which we call the bombilla here. It’s a bit weird because everyone uses it, but never will you find someone that washes it.”
That would be rude?
“Yes, yes, that would be very rude.”
How often do you drink mate, or share mate?
“Well, there are lots of people they have breakfast with mate, as soon as they get up they drink mate. It’s not my case. I am a social drinker of mate. When I am with a friend, a group of friends, in the class or in a meeting, yes, I drink mate. Perhaps two or three times a week.”
And how long do you normally share it for, how long is the ritual or the process?
“Well, it depends on how much water you have in the termo. In general, it’s better if you can have a water dispenser closer so once you finish the termo you can put another. Also, the important thing about mate is that it’s cheap. Because, I mean yerba, to buy the yerba is more or less 25 pesos per kilo (just shy of $3 US) and that’s for five or six mates. And hot water is – some places ask money for it – about one or two pesos for one litre of hot water, so it is cheap.”
Who introduced you to mate?
“Well, I don’t remember, it’s like to remember how you learnt your language. I mean, it’s with you. I don’t remember some person or some special moment that somebody came and said, look, this is the mate. Since I remember I knew what mate is. As time goes by, I was growing up and learning how to prepare my own mate. It’s not a big process or a difficult process.”
How do you carry the mate with you?
“Yes, in my bag, I put the mate, the pipe, a little tin with the yerba and the termo to put hot water.”
And what is the importance of mate in Argentina?
“Well, yes, it’s very important because you will find it in every place. You can buy a mate in the supermarket, you can buy it in a shop, you can buy it in a tourist shop. If you go to parks, if you go to meetings, if you go to any place you will find that people are drinking mate. It’s part of our culture, as football, as barbecue, as tango. I mean, it’s part of our culture.”
Do people ever drink mate at the football?
“No, because they don’t allow you to enter the football stadium with the mate because they are scared you throw the mate to the players (laughs).”
And the way that you share mate in Buenos Aires, is it different to the way they share mate in other places in Argentina?
“No, no, it’s the same. There are some specific persons that put different types of special plants that makes your digestion better.”
Like little flowers?
“Yes, little flowers on top of the yerba, or they mix it with the yerba so the mate taste is different, and of course it makes your digestion process quicker. Mate hurries your digestion up but with the little flowers it is faster. Then you will find people who drink it bitter (‘amargo’), or they put sugar. I am used to drinking it bitter because it’s easier; I mean, you don’t always carry sugar around with you.”
Flori Cazou and Agus Val
What is the significance of mate to you and when do you drink it?
Flori: “For me, it’s like a symbol of being Argentine and I like it and I drink it when I finish work. After work, like 5pm when I get home, I drink mate. And also when I study – I can’t study without mate, I couldn’t make it. I don’t know if it helps me to concentrate but it’s like a company, I don’t know. And with my friends also and with my family I drink a lot of mate. I think it’s a characteristic of the culture, that thing that makes you feel Argentine.”
So it’s part of your identity?
Flori: “Yes it’s part of my identity.”
Agus: “I feel that it’s my friend, the mate. I share with other friends, my family, at home, in the office, and while I am studying too. And, maybe for sharing a moment with people you never know, too, well, with friends too.”
What is the significance of mate in Argentina?
Agus: “I think that for all of us it’s like something common and known for everybody because we all have this habit of drinking mate every day and in different occasions.”
How much yerba do you think you go through in a month?
Agus: “I don’t know exactly because here I live with my family so we all drink. Sometimes we drink with each other, sometimes alone and I couldn’t calculate, but I think that one package in a month. I don’t know really because I never buy. Mum buys, but I don’t know exactly.”
Flori: “In my case no, because my Mum doesn’t like mate so I drink with my brother and I think two packages per month.”
How big is the package?
Agus: “The biggest, because we are five here so all of us drink or have mate.”
And is this your mate Agus?
Agus: “Yes, it’s mine, only mine. We all have one mate and one termo.”
Tell me about your mate.
Agus: “Well, we have here different types of mate. I prefer this one, with wood, because for me, the taste is better. I have one from the trip, when we traveled by car, I have another one that is a plastic mate, but we don’t like, it’s not the same.”
And do you prefer the wooden mate as well Flori?
Flori: “Yes, yes, it’s the best material.”
Agus: “Because the wood absorbs the flavour of the herbs and…”
Flor: “It’s like the plastic rejects the flavour. It’s not the same. It’s more lighter. There is another one, I use it with glass.”
Agus: “There are some glass mates, but I don’t like it.”
Flor: “The wood is the best one.”
And when you buy a wooden mate you put the yerba in the water and leave it overnight?
Agus: “You have to leave it one day. Because you have to…”
Flor: “…make it healthy. Here we use the term curar [to treat].”
And you never wash the mate with soap do you?
Both: “No, just water.”
What’s the most mate you’ve ever taken in a day?
Agus: “Two litres.”
And when you go places do you always take your mate?
Agus: “When we went to Rosario or when we traveled through Europe we had our mate, always we have with us.”