Yerba mate is the herb with which the beverage (and the terms yerba mate and mate are used interchangeably in reference to the beverage) is made and grows on a low tree that looks quite similar to an olive tree. While the majority of its nutrients are found in the leaves, parts of the entire tree are included in the infusion. The tree can be found in the river basins of the Paraná, Uruguay and Paraguay rivers where they run between the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
Historically, the indigenous peoples of this area used the herb for its medicinal properties, and while it is still used as a medicine, its purposes have broadened with its modern day drinkers. Yerba mate now is thought to help with rheumatic and intestinal problems (amongst others), and is also taken as a sort of energy drink.
In addition to its health promoting qualities, Argentines now drink yerba mate simply to enjoy and to preserve an ancient tradition. As you might find when you talk to more Argentines, mate can be drunk at any time of the day. The drink can be consumed in the comforts of home, but can also be taken along just about anywhere, depending on how one prefers to drink it.
There are several ways one can drink yerba mate. The most common ways are either as mate cocido which is just like any other tea with a small satchel that is soaked in hot water, or as mate cebada, which has a much more recognizable image.
Mate cebada is drunk from a container made from either a hollowed gourd, from wood, or from metal. Then, a tube, usually made of metal, is used as a straw to drink the beverage out of the container. The yerba mate is put into a small recipient in the container and submerged into hot water, much like loose teas. Once it has stewed for a bit, then it can be drunk.
Though the drink is somewhat of a primitive tradition, it has made its way into the commercial market. Now, one can buy yerba mate in several forms at grocery stores and from different brands.
More important than the historical and scientific background behind mate is: what does it taste like? Served plain (in the most traditional manner) mate has a mild, bitter taste. When serving the mate plain, or bitter, the container has to be thoroughly cleaned in order to avoid contaminating the infusion with other flavors. Once the container has been thoroughly cleaned and dried, then the dried herbs and water can be added.
To serve yerba mate as a sweet beverage is a bit more of a complicated process. Like always, the container must be thoroughly cleaned. Then, the interior of the container must be moistened enough that two small spoonfuls of sugar will stick to the interior walls. The sugar is added into the container, and then shaken up so that it adheres to the walls. Then, it is left to dry thoroughly. Once it has completely dried, one or two little coals are added and shaken around inside until they burn out. The coals are emptied and the process is repeated. Then, hot water is poured into the container, yerba mate is added in, it is left to set over night, and finally by the next day, the drink is ready.
If neither of those two options seem to appeal to your taste buds, then you can also get different variations of yerba mate that are flavored, much like flavored teas. There are fruity variations as well as minty or coffee flavored. Mate can also be served cold or hot, again depending on personal preferences.
As much as reading and talking about yerba mate might give you some insight, there is truly no better way to really understand the Argentine tradition than to share it with a group of friends.
¿Como lo tome vos? How will you have it?