In lockstep with “selling ice to eskimos,” one would think that selling hot water to Portenos in the middle of the hottest summer in Buenos Aires in 43 years, would be nearly impossible.
But it’s not. It’s actually quite easy.
In fact, it’s rare to find an Argentinian or Uruguayan walking around without a thermos of hot water under one arm - rain or shine, blistering hot or freezing cold.
In the parks and at the beaches, kiosks advertise “hay agua caliente” (hot water available) as people walk by dripping in sweat. The first time I saw one of these signs, I did a double take and wondered if my high-school Spanish teacher accidently taught me the wrong word for hot.
I thought to myself, why in the world would anyone want hot water in this weather?
I mean, if it's hot enough for this guy to walk around like this, what could possibly be the need for hot water.
I soon found out the answer: yerba mate or just mate for short.
What Is Yerba Mate?
Mate is a tea-like drink made from the leaves and stems of the yerba mate plant grown in subtropical South America (primarily in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Southern Brazil). It has been compared to green tea in flavor. It has a bitter flavor that tastes like a combination of grass, toasted wood, and herbs. In the grocery stores of Argentina and Uruguay, there is typically an entire aisle dedicated to the display of a large variety of types, brands, and flavors of mate.
Mate is a near obsession down here. And it’s not just a drink or a source of caffeine, although it does contains high levels of caffeine. Mate is an age-old tradition, like wine in France, espresso in Italy, and tea in England. With mate comes etiquette, ritual, and a social experience.
So if you want to taste some Latin American culture with us, grab a gourd, bombilla, and thermos of hot water and sip some mate. I’ll show you how to do it like a local.
In fact, I'm drinking some right now as I write this post.
What You Need To Make Mate:
Fill the gourd about 2/3 full with loose yerba mate leaves and stems.
Place hand over the top of the gourd and shake a few times toward the opening. When you remove your hand you will see green powder on your hand. By removing this at the beginning, less will come through the filter of your straw.
Place bombilla into the mate. Once it is in, never move it or stir the mate. If you do, many of the mate leaves will enter your filter and you will get chunks of it in your mouth. Gross.
Pour hot water up to the top of the gourd. Don’t use boiling water! It will make your mate extra bitter.
Sip and enjoy!
It's A Social Drink
Don’t forget that drinking mate is a social occasion. Drink it with friends and drink it out of the same gourd with the same straw/bombilla. When I look around the parks in Buenos Aires, I see groups of friends, sometimes 5-10 friends sitting together, but I only see one gourd and bombilla. They all share the same equipment.
The host, or person that brought the mate and gear, fills the gourd and passes it to the first person. The first person drinks the entire cup and then hands it back to the host. If they say “gracias” when returning it, then it means they don’t want anymore. If they say nothing, the host will fill the cup with more water and return it to them.
Once the first person has had their fill, the host will fill the gourd again and then pass it to the next person, reusing the same mate. You do not need to add new mate to the gourd each time.
The ritual continues till everyone has had their fill of mate.
Where To Get It
If experiencing a little Latin American culture isn’t reason enough to give mate a try, keep in mind that this little miracle drink is touted to help digestion and weightloss, and it contains antioxidants too.
The first time I heard of Yerba Mate and its health benefits, I was still living in the States. Naively, I took the cheater route and bought tea bags containing Yerba Mate. It tasted like bad green tea and I ignorantly snubbed my nose at the stuff.
So if you’re going to give mate a try, drink the real thing, the real way. Doing anything else is like drinking Nescafe instant coffee and after your first sip swearing off Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee for the rest of your life. Crazy.
And while you are at it, drink it at least twice before you form your opinion. Most people I talk to don't like it the first time, but then are hooked for life by round two.
Here are some options on Amazon to buy mate and the equipment necessary to make it at home:
So taste a little bit of the world with us through sips and bits from home or the office or wherever you happen to be. Cheers and salud!
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!