Cómo tomar yerba mate: A reflection on yerba mate culture and experiences in Argentina

Cómo tomar yerba mate: A reflection on yerba mate culture and experiences in Argentina

 Martha Stewart's yerba mate

Martha Stewart's yerba mate

This essay is the fourth entry into Issue 1 of Omakase Magazine: “Idols,” which will be running during September and October. To learn more about this issue, check out our Letter from the Editor.

Part I

Yerba mate. You may have heard of it.  It is the South American drink that some Americans assume is drug paraphernalia, with its green leaves and pipe-like device. However, it is a common drink consumed throughout Argentina and its surrounding countries. A social drink, mate is typically shared among a circle of friends or family members. In the past few years, the tea-like drink has been co-opted by American markets and pushed as an alternative to traditional iced tea and energy drinks.  

Just as I was sitting down to write, my radio spouted off about the latest product line to hit the shelves, Brisk Mate, an exotic energy-enhancing iced tea that lets the consumer tap into “the power of the tribe.”  Cue the eye roll. However, in South America, yerba mate continues to be primarily consumed in the traditional way, not transformed and commercialized into trendy new products for individual consumption. Yerba mate remains the quintessential beverage of Argentina: a symbol of national identity and pride. As I prepared for a semester abroad in Argentina, mate was the first and most recurring part of Argentine culture that I learned about. My contrarian tendencies led me to reject mate as a simplistic symbol of Argentine culture, an easily identifiable cultural icon. I assumed that I would find a truer, more authentic—you know, less mainstream—part of the culture to cling to as a memento, but I’m left with mate-tinged memories.

My first introduction to the beverage was not in Argentina, but in a possibly cult-operated cafe in Manitou Springs, Colorado: the Mate Factor. Open 24 hours a day, except for on the group’s sabbath, the Mate Factor regularly provided my friends and me with an interesting venue for late-night conversations and people watching. The mate was served in a communal push-button carafe, hissed out in a pressurized stream of acrid brown-green liquid, then sweetened to perfection. Between my frequent stops at the Mate Factor and a couple of Argentina guide books, I was sure I knew everything there was to know about the drink, and thus the country, when I landed at the Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires. However, I quickly realized that beauty of the drink lies in its extremes: bold, bitter, and too hot to drink quickly. Preparing and drinking yerba mate is an art that should not be confined to large-scale batches and push-button carafes, or toned down with milk and honey. 

Any worthwhile yerba mate resource will highlight the importance of preparation. Take, for example, the mate scene in Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle series, starring Gael Garcia Bernal as the Maestro Rodrigo, a Mexican conductor whose mission is to revive the sagging New York Symphony. When Hailey Rutledge, played by Lola Kirke, becomes the Maestro’s assistant, one of the first obstacles she must overcome is preparing the yerba mate for the Maestro. A fan of mate, the Maestro records step-by-step instructions for his new assistant on a cassette tape, walking Hailey through the detailed procedure of mate preparation. Throughout the tape, there’s an underlying tone of do not deviate, a tone that I experienced personally when my host family taught me about mate. Hailey muddles through the complicated and unfamiliar steps on the recording and the Maestro commends her for the attempt. This dedication to such a formulaic preparation might make the Maestro seem like a pompous ass, but correctly prepared mate is really that important. 

Let’s start with the very first step, barring the cultivation of the yerba, the loose, tea-like leaves. Since the Maestro was a seasoned mate drinker, his yerba receptacle, a mate gourd, or guampa1, was already good to go—Hailey lucked out. For those who are just taking up mate drinking, growing their guampa collection2, or replacing an old guampa, curing the mate gourd is the first and most time-consuming step. Guampas come in many materials: hollowed gourds, wood, metal, animal horns, glass, and in the past few years, silicone. The natural, porous materials must undergo a curing process—seasoning the material for flavor and durability. This often takes a few days and there are many conflicting opinions on how the curing process is best accomplished. Some swear by filling the guampa with used yerba for a few days, thereby humidifying the material. Others say to rub the guampa with olive oil or lard to seal the material from fluctuations in temperature and humidity levels. Upon my return to the United States, I thought I had successfully cured a new guampa only to find a large, irreparable crack in the wood after only a few uses. Clearly, I am not qualified to act as a resource on this procedure.

Once the guampa is adequately cured, it is ready for use. Selecting the best yerba comes down to personal preference. There are yerba purists: all yerba and nothing but yerba.  There are people that like added herbs and flavorings. Alternatively, some like “smooth” yerba (how this distinction is achieved is beyond me). Regardless of the type of yerba, the next step is to fill the guampa 3/4 full. Cover the top of the guampa with your hand, turn it sidewise, and shake. This loosens the bitter dust that is produced during the milling process, or at least that’s my explanation.  Either way, you have to do it (do I sound like the Maestro yet?). You may then place the bombilla, the metal strainer-meets-straw, toward the edge of the yerba, turning the whole shebang upright. There are a number of bombilla options as well, but there doesn’t seem to be as much mysticism about the bombilla as there is about the guampa. While filling the gourd, shaking it, and inserting the bombilla, heat the water. Mate is served using water that is heated to just-before-boiling, then poured into a thermos. If the water boils, start over with new water.  I’m sure a mate specialist would tell you the boiling water damages the yerba, but I really have no idea if this true.  

Now might be a good time to mention that this is not the end all, be all guide to mate preparation—I’m writing from memory and from the traditions of a small province of Argentina, not from thorough, scholarly research. However, the fundamental process holds true. Once the water and guampa are ready, the magic can happen. Gently pour the water near the bombilla, watching the yerba begin to rise with buoyancy. Stop the pour just as the top layer of yerba becomes moist, avoiding a deluge of near-boiling water. At this point, some people choose to spit out the first few sips of mate in order to reduce the initial bitterness. Personally, the concentrated mate flavor makes me feel like a hardcore, mate-drinking badass, but it really can be overwhelmingly bitter. The steaming hot and strongly brewed mate makes the push-button carafe variety pale in comparison.  

Part II

...Curing the Guampa...

Less regimented but perhaps equally important were the preparations I enacted before embarking to Argentina for the first time. My decision to study abroad, particularly to Argentina, was not the result of a meticulous research project or self-reflection. It was a decision that I made in one night, inspired by my sister’s experience studying abroad in Turkey. In the following months, I worked diligently to ensure an on-time high school graduation, ordered Argentina guide books and a volume on Argentine slang, received what seemed like an entire arsenal of vaccines, and experienced the exasperating ins and outs of passport applications, visa applications, and complicated consulate jurisdictions. Flying to Houston to pick up my passport and student visa from the Argentine Consulate was the first milestone of the journey. It was the first time I flew without my parents, it was the first time I depended on strangers, and perhaps the most formative, it was the first time I tried real, raw fish sushi.  

This was the start of the Cool Chapter of my life, starring well, myself, as an international, sushi-eating jetsetter. My palms were sweaty as I tried to maneuver the chopsticks around the rolls. I closed my eyes and took the plunge. Being from landlocked Colorado, my experience with fish and other types of seafood was limited to frozen fish sticks, so this was a big moment. Mildly flavored rice, chewy seaweed. Bright orange roe sprinkled across the rice like salty Pop Rocks. If I ignored the the fact that I was eating fish, raw fish, covered in fish eggs, I actually started to enjoy it. Encouraged by my success with the rolls, I was horrified when I gagged on yellowfin sashimi, afraid of what this would imply about me and my readiness for adventure. I soldiered on, battling the reflex. Little did I know, I would be doing the same thing on my first day with my host family. 3

...Selecting the Yerba...

Bolstered by the adventure in Houston, I was eager to hear about my specific placement in Argentina. Once I received the notice, I quickly turned to perhaps the most obvious form preparation: internet research. In early 2009, Google did not return many results when I searched for Montecarlo, Misiones, Argentina. I have a vague memory of looking at the town on Google’s satellite images—it was a mass of greenery and not much more.  I fought hard against the disappointment. In 2016, the english Wikipedia article still only contains one sentence about the town:  Montecarlo is a village and municipality in Misiones Province in north-eastern Argentina. Even now, I roll my eyes and think, “Thanks, internet.  I feel very prepared to go live there for five months.” The lack of information was and still is jarring. At the time, I was terrified of five months in a foreign country, alone in what appeared to be a mysterious South American jungle-town, not one of the cities neatly laid out in my guidebooks. Rejecting anxiety, I superimposed counterfeit positive vibes before my departure.  

...Enjoying the Mate...

Although my preparations successfully prevented me from getting deported or coming down with typhoid or malaria I was not prepared for the days spent in self-reflection, isolation 4, homesickness5, and stress6. Nor could I have anticipate the moments of sheer joy, vitality, and freedom that I experienced as a teenager with a blank slate and without fear of lasting judgement or gossip7. Instead, I was (naively) prepared for perfect outcomes that never fully materialized: immaculate Spanish, loads of close friends, a doting host family in one of Argentina’s famous cities, maybe learning how to tango along the way. The initial bitterness I felt because of the disconnected expectations and reality could not be mitigated, unlike the first few sips of mate. Powering through it, however, turned me into a hardcore, mate-drinking badass.

  1. In spanish, the receptacle is typically referred to as a mate. I know what you’re thinking...Mate = hot drink. But in addition to that, Mate = hot drink receptacle. For the sake of simplicity, I will use the word guampa--a mate made out of an animal horn.

  2. I have at least six, not all of them functional.

  3. Instead of force-feeding me sashimi, I was served a giant piece of morsilla, blood sausage, within hours of my arrival. I had to comply or risk offending the people that would be taking care of me for the next five months.

  4. i.e. I lived in a house with no internet that was 30 minutes outside of town. I often hung out with this old lady who made me homemade pizza, served me beer, and played cards with me.

  5. Again, no internet. Plus a sizeable language barrier at first.

  6. I had the shits for two to three weeks straight!

  7. I made some..interesting..choices.

To my grandmother, written in spring

To my grandmother, written in spring

Strawberry Sunrise

Strawberry Sunrise