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In Argentina, yerba maté is not just a drink, but a way of life. This warm herbal caffeinated beverage is how Argentines wake up in the morning, what they drink on the bus on the way to work, and is always a central reason to meet and socialize with friends and family during merienda (evening tea-time). For hundreds of years, the Guaraní Indians of South America drank maté as a way to mitigate thirst and hunger and to add vitamins and minerals to their diet. Today, most Argentines of all social classes and backgrounds take part in the maté tradition, from sunrise to sunset.

The drinking of maté is an intimate ritual and it’s important to understand how it’s done so as not to offend your Argentine friends: One person prepares the maté, filling the calabash gourd with the dried & chopped maté leaves. Cool water is added to the gourd and let set for a moment until the herb absorbs the liquid. The bombilla (the silver straw with a bulbous end and strainer at the bottom) is stuck in the gourd at an angle before the hot (not boiling) water is added. Typically, whoever prepares the maté drinks the first gourd until it’s dry, to ensure the taste is okay and the water isn’t too hot or cool. The gourd is re-filled with warm water and passed to the next person in the circle, who sips down the cup and passes the gourd to the next person without stiring or saying gracias (stiring clogs the straw, and saying thanks means you’re done drinking the maté and will be skipped the next round). This process continues around the circle for several times until the maté loses flavor and everyone has had their fill. Some people add sugar or milk to maté, but unless whoever is preparing the drink suggests these additions, it is rude to ask for it, and you’ll just have to get used to that bitter and earthy maté flavor.

While most cafés in Argentina do serve maté, it is often in a tea-bag, but in practically any grocery or corner store, one can find bombillas, thermoses for hot water, bags of ready-to-use yerba maté, and gourds of all styles and designs, making it easy to take part in this fun ritual in a plaza or park just like the locals.

Before you use a new gourd, don’t forget the important step of curing it, which involves filling it with maté herb and cool water. Let it sit for 24 hours (refilling with water if it’s become dry) to allow the gourd to absorb moisture and prevent it from cracking when hot water is eventually added during use. After each use, scrape out the wet maté leaves, rinse with water, and turn upside down on a towel to let it dry. Never use soap in your gourd! The more you use your gourd, the more flavorful your drink will become. Disfruta!

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By Karen Nagy
Karen Nagy is a staff editor/writer at V!VA. She studied travel writing and learned the joys of Mediterranean island-hopping in Greece, and went on...
02 Mar 2009

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