You just can't spend any time in Argentina without seeing and then being intrigued by their love of mate (ma-tay). It's a drink similar to a strong green tea, but it's much more than a drink - it's a social experience.
The leaves, yerba mate, are grown in the northern part of Argentina, and come packaged in 1 kg bags, making our one pound of coffee packages look small. There are smaller packages, but by far the most common is the larger 1 kg bags. Why would you buy a smaller bag when you're just going to drink it all anyway?
At first glance, it just looks like people are drinking tea in a funny shaped cup through a metal straw, with lots of leaves in the cup. Then you realize they are passing around the cup and everyone is drinking from the same straw. Nothing to them. Minor heart palpitations for uptight, germaphobe North Americans.
Of course, there are preparations and rules for drinking mate.
- Fill the cup about 2/3 full of leaves
- Put your hand over the cup, turn it upside down and shake gently. This apparently gets rid of some of the dust-like particles in the mate
- Push the leaves over into one half of the cup
- Pour a bit of hot water slowly into the other half of the cup
- Insert the metal straw. Technically, it's not a straw like you're thinking. It's pressed and flattened a bit at the end you drink from, and the other end seems to be a funny shape of sorts made to help prevent you from sucking up bitter mate leaves
- Never, ever move the straw around. It's in its place now until the whole drinking session ends.
- Add more hot water.
- Pourer passes to person on his right. Person takes a sip and then passes the cup back to the pourer. The pourer then passes to the next person and so the process continues. It's a slow drawn out process with a whole lot of talking done in between.
- If you're sick or have a mouth sore, you don't drink from this communal straw and cup.
- To not drink you simply say "gracias" - though meaning "thank you", means in this instance, "thanks, but I'll pass".
- Add more hot water as needed. Then, when the flavour is weak, the whole process starts all over again.
When we heard about this whole process, I imagined friends getting together at someone's house and hauling out the mate, much like we put on the coffee, or the English make a cuppa. But it's far more ubiquitous than that.
At first I noticed many of the outdoor street vendors in Buenos Aires drinking it. Not unusual. They're sitting at their stalls all day, why wouldn't they have some. Then, in Puerto Madryn, I noticed groups of friends sitting together along the beach, and each group had one cup of mate being passed around. As time passed, I noticed the mate cup more frequently, and almost always accompanied by a slender thermos filled with hot water to top up the cup of mate.
Then we headed north to Iguazú Falls, which happens to be the area where yerba mate is grown. Mate cups and thermoses were everywhere.
People took their cups down to breakfast to fill it up with mate, and asked the kitchen to fill their thermoses. People drank it while walking on the trails at the falls themselves. People drank it everywhere, at anytime.
We tried it on a tour. Meaghan quite enjoyed it. I found it strong and a little bitter. We did learn later that sometimes people add honey or sugar to their water supply to sweeten up the drink.
One of our AirBnb rentals had the supplies to make. We tried that, but I wasn't so good at getting the leaves to one side and pouring in the water. It looks easy, but there's some skill there. Meaghan wasn't put off though. She drank it up, and I didn't even have to add any sugar to the water.
But what I find most interesting, I haven't noticed mate on any menus. Nor have I seen people drinking it in cafés or restaurants. Maybe I just haven't taken proper note, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if this social ritual remained outside the café culture and really was just for people getting together.
As fun as the ritual is, and as much as it appeals to me, I still prefer my coffee and travel mug from which I only drink.