Local Obsessions

Drinking Mate in Argentina

by Sharon Salt

Mates are also really beautiful. Photo by Sharon Salt.

The last time we checked in with Sharon Salt, she was posing for fake wedding photos outside Shanghai. She's been living in Buenos Aires for a few months, which has been enough time to master the local art of drinking yerba mate.

BUENOS AIRES – You can't live in Buenos Aires for more than a week or two without having, or at least hearing about, mate. Drinking mate is a popular social pastime here, whether it's in the parks during summer or to keep warm inside during winter. The drink provides health benefits too numerous to name and a caffeine buzz but without any of the jitters.

Mate is kind of like tea, but no one considers it a tea. In fact, some people don't even consider it a drink. It's something, though, and it's made by steeping dry bits of yerba leaves in hot water. It's decidedly bitter, but not any more so than black coffee or dark chocolate. Still, Argentines will still be surprised if you tell them you like the taste. (For those of you who don't care for bitter things, it’s not uncommon to add a little sugar.)

First of all, let's clear up the fact that mate actually refers to the container and not the leaves themselves. This took me a good three months to figure out. The mate can be made from hooves, metal, glass, or gourds, among other things. Then we have the yerba, which are the leaves that are available in all kinds of qualities, quantities, and flavors. The metal straw is called the bombilla. The hot water is often served out of a kettle or thermos. Now for the rules:

1. Do not say thank you.

When the server passes you the mate, don't say thank you unless you're full and don't want to drink anymore. A quiet automatic gracias still slips out of my mouth every once in a while, because it seems natural, after all — someone just prepared a drink for me and is handing it to me thoughtfully — but no. Don't say thank you.

2. Leave the bombilla where it is.

Look, I know it's tempting, and I, too, want to stir bombilla around like I've just been handed coffee and cream, but you shouldn't. If you do, the little yerba leaf bits will get stuck in the openings of the bombilla and come up the straw in the next sip. It's not pleasant.

3. Drink in a timely fashion.

You don't have to rush, but don't set down the mate in the middle of your long-winded story so you can gesture more, either. People are waiting!

4. Hand the mate back to the server.

There is only one server, and he or she is in charge of when and how the mate gets poured. After you finish drinking, hand it back to so the server can add more water and pass the mate to the next person. Then wait your turn. It will come back.

This article previously appeared on Sharon's blog and has been reprinted with her permission.

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