Food Science: Maté (or Yerbamate)
When I was in Argentina, one of the most widespread cultural phenomena that I encountered was the maté. Maté is popular enough by now that it has reached the United States. You may have seen bottled beverages labeled as yerbamate–that’s maté, brewed into a cold beverage… usually mixed with some other ingredient for flavor, like mint or pomegranate. The taste of maté on its own is a unique, acquired taste. I’ve never smoked a tobacco cigarette in my life, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it were similar in flavor.
Anyway. The way we do maté in the US is wildly different from how South America does it! In the US, we are grab-n-go Starbucks consumers by day and reserve social beverage imbibing for beer. In Argentina, however, it is commonplace to hang out with friends and share a maté. This means drinking from the same vessel and passing it around the group. If I had to compare it to something easily familiar to Americans, I’d say it’s like sharing a joint with your friends… except, you know, with less legal implications.
So here’s a walkthrough on what maté is all about!
These are the “basics” of a maté. The maté comes in loose leaf form, usually packed into paper sacks like you might purchase flour. There is a thing called “maté cocido,” which is “cooked maté” and that’s served in satchels, but I think that’s a huge cop-out and I wouldn’t recommend it. The leaves here are very dry and shredded, kind of like a dusty oregano.
The wooden bit to the right is called a calabaza de maté or, simply, a gourd. You can get these gourds made from a lot of different materials. Some people prefer ceramic or silicone gourds because they are much easier to keep clean. Mine is actually a gourd and the inside of it kind of looks like a hollowed out pumpkin. You’re supposed to keep these things dry or they grow mold on them very easily (which is why people prefer the ceramic and silicone variety!).
The two things on the bottom are bombillas (in Argentina this is pronounced bohm-beesh-uh, everywhere else bohm-bee-yuh). You only need one for a maté but I included two to show the different types you can use. These are used as a straw, except they don’t open on the bottom–they’re effectively filters, allowing the water to get through without you swallowing maté leaves. The one on the top is a bit more decorative than the bottom one, but both work great 🙂
You can get all of these supplies from Amazon, however, I did find a really cool international grocery store near me that sold all of these things as well, so they’re not hard to come by and are pretty cheap (everything above shouldn’t cost you more than $10 USD).
Making a maté is not at all like making a tea! You want to heat your water to about 80 degrees fahrenheit or 26 degrees celsius. If you heat it any higher than that, your maté will taste bitter and gross!
First, you fill your gourd with the maté. It should go almost to the top.
It can be kind of messy! And as I said before, dusty. The dust is fine, but you don’t want to drink that, so the next step helps eliminate that. If you’ve ever cooked rice in a pot, you’ve probably used your fingers to help clean the rice and filter out extra starch. This is similar. Place your hand flat on the opening of the gourd so that the opening is completely covered and flip it over a few times. This will sift a lot of the dust out and it’ll end up on your hand like so:
You can just wash this off. You don’t need it for anything! At this point it’s time to put your bombilla into the gourd. You push it down straight at first and then move it a little so the end of the bombilla is touching the other side. Your bombilla will basically look like it’s sitting diagonally. Explaining this makes it sound more complicated than it really is, so here’s a picture:
Pretty obvious, right? My gourd here doesn’t have enough maté in it in this picture, but this is how the bombilla should look. At this point, pour your water in. You want the water to go all the way to the top. Once you’ve filled it, it’s time to drink it! Use the top of the bombilla like a straw and drink until there’s nothing left to drink.
Refill the calabaza with water and pass it on to your friend. They’ll drink out of the same gourd and bombilla. Make sure you take lots of photos of their facial expressions as they react to it for the first time! Keep refilling until you’re done or out of water.
Maté doesn’t have caffeine in it, but it does have something called mateine, which is from the same family of psychoactive ingredients… it works essentially the same as caffeine. You can find a lot of material online from people arguing on both sides that it’s not the same. Some say mateine makes you more relaxed than caffeine or that you need more mateine to get the same effect as caffeine. Unless you plan on taking like 20 hits of the gourd or just flat out cannot have caffeine, I wouldn’t be concerned. It’s no different from drinking a cup of earl gray or a cup of slightly weak coffee (if you’re used to double-shots of espresso, this will do nothing for you, nor should it be your primary intent for drinking maté!)
Would I recommend maté? Sure. It’s a fun socializing activity if nothing else.