Yerba Mate: Brew Up a Taste of Argentina at Home
When it comes to piquing an audience’s interest, international teachers know to appeal to the palate. Program members with Educational Partners International (EPI) have demonstrated how to steam eggs (to ensure students concentrate on Mandarin vocabulary and pronunciation). They have served up jerk chicken (to whet community members’ appetite for learning about Jamaican culture). And they have shared how to make empanadas and arepas (as a tasty way to celebrate Colombian culture and Hispanic Heritage Month).
One perk of working at EPI is the window we members of staff have on all of these culturally enriching experiences. When English as a Second Language teacher Rita Aldorino taught her students about mate (pronounced MAH-teh), the national drink of her native Argentina, we took note. We’re always on the lookout for new warm beverages to try.
In her demonstration at Alston Middle School in Summerville, South Carolina, Aldorino went over the utensils involved. Mate means gourd in Spanish, and the drink is traditionally consumed in a hollowed-out calabash fruit. To drink the beverage, you use a metal straw (or bombilla). The drink itself is made by steeping the herb (yerba) in water. (In fact, “yerba mate” is another name for the beverage, and you may also see it written “maté.”)
Eager to try the drink ourselves, we went online and bought two gourds, sold as a package with a pair of bombillas and a pipe cleaner (for brushing out the metal straws). The mate leaves we bought separately.
Natural gourds require curing before use. For those wishing for something that can go from cupboard to table to dishwasher, stainless steel alternatives are another option. (Or you could use a regular mug.)
The steps we took to make the mate produced a warm, flavorful beverage, with a slight, reedy edge that was stimulating (without sinking into a weedy bogginess).
Warm Up with Stimulating Mate
- Fill gourd or mug three-quarters full of mate leaves.
- Cover the container’s mouth, flip it over, and shake the leaves inside.
- Turn the container back over and hold it at an incline, with leaves mounded toward the lip of the vessel. Insert the bombilla into the gourd, passing over the mound, with the straw’s end resting next to the pile.
- Moisten with a splash of cool water, pouring it behind the leaves and into the bottom of the container.
- Add warm water – hot, but not boiling – in the same manner.
- Steep for a moment, then sip through the bombilla.
- Enjoy, adding more water after each sip!
Try Before You Buy?
If you prefer to sample mate before buying a box of it, you may be in luck. We found it served at multiple locations within a 30-minute driving radius from our office in Swannanoa, North Carolina. For a colleague in Kansas, however, ordering a cup of mate would require a drive of more than 30 miles! Finding the beverage in the USA may depend on your proximity to a medium-sized city or college town.
If you aren’t sure you want to buy a bombilla, but you already own a French press, try making mate in it by following steps similar to brewing coffee. Add a couple of tablespoons of mate to the press, add about 16 ounces of warm water, brew for four minutes or so, then push the press’s plunger down and pour out a fresh cup!
A tea strainer is another option. When a colleague asked for mate at a café, the barista told him that the café ordinarily serves it in tea bags. With none ready that morning, the barista placed the mate in a strainer over a cup, then poured warm water over it. She shared that many customers bought mate by the drink or by the bag, and that several customers who order Moroccan tea at the café consume the mint tea in combination with mate. She noted that the beverage contains a lot of caffeine, and that she found its taste bitter – akin to her experiences with wheatgrass drinks. (But she wasn’t partial to many of the beverages whose leaves the café sold, she hastened to add.)
For his part, our colleague reported that he didn’t find the drink particularly bitter – nor did it make him feel jittery the way some coffee drinks do. At the café, the mate was labeled as a “strong, earthy green mate from Brazil.” And as you might guess from mate’s botanical name, ilex paraguariensis, it’s also grown in Paraguay, with Chile, Uruguay, and Bolivia – and even Syria and Lebanon – being among other countries where it’s popular. (The ilex, meanwhile, reveals the plant to be a member of the holly family.) In Argentina, mate is consumed while socializing, with a gourd being passed in a group as folks sip and add water. As Julia J.S. Sarreal writes in her introduction to Yerba Mate: The Drink That Shaped a Nation (University of California Press, 2022), the beverage “has been a part of the culture in Argentina and neighboring countries in South America since before ‘Argentina’ or ‘South America’ ever existed.”
A Food & Wine article touches on how it has been received farther north. In “Everything You Need to Know About Yerba Mate Tea, the South American Super-Beverage,” Priya Krishna writes that the beverage has “migrated over to the U.S., and in recent years has become a popular ingredient in everything from health elixirs to energy drinks. It's hailed not only as an energy booster, but also as a means for weight loss, concentration, and better digestion.”
We’ll leave it to you to weigh the truth of those claims. In our case, we’re grateful that Aldorino’s cultural exchange effort led us to try the drink. We’re sure it will warm us again this winter, and who knows? We might just try drinking it cold in the summer. If we do, we’ll be sure to keep you updated here!