Learning to Love Argentina’s Best Herb
Yerba Mate in Buenos Aires
The first time I drank yerba mate, Argentina’s beloved loose-leaf tea, I thought I was about to smoke pot in class with 20 of my Argentine peers.
I had just arrived in Buenos Aires to study abroad, speaking limited Spanish. I sat in a dilapidated classroom inside the University of Buenos Aires’ Social Science building.
Instead of deciphering what was coming out of the professor’s mouth, my attention was diverted by the guy in front of me. He sported a bushy mullet with a luscious dreadlocked rat-tail dangling between his shoulder blades (what I later learned to be a standard hairstyle back in 2006). He wore a sleeveless, see-through white tunic paired with multicolored, striped woven pants, something MC Hammer might have worn if he ever made a music video featuring Argentine gaucho dancers.
He rustled through his knapsack and whipped out a wooden cup-like container. Then, he took out a bag filled with green herbs and began pouring the leafy contents inside the cup. He covered his hand over the top, gave it a good shake, and blew away a dusty residue. He stuck what appeared to be a metal pipe inside, reached for a thermos under his chair, and poured in a steaming liquid. He wrapped his lips around the pipe and sucked. After nursing it, he poured more liquid, and passed the cup to a girl next to him, who took a few sips, and gave it back. He refilled the cup from the thermos and returned it to the girl, who delivered it to the guy beside her. This passing continued, and I studied the drink pattern as it snaked around the classroom.
What the hell is going on? Some shamanistic Argentine university initiation? A girl started hacking up a lung in the corner, culminating in a loud juicy sneeze. Plus, no one was even wiping off this herpes-covered, mouth-sore germ vessel.
I was handed the cup: damp pieces of green leaves and woodchips floated in water, smelling like herbaceous burnt hay. A metal straw was jammed inside. I pressed my lips against it and strenuously inhaled. HOLY HOT HELL SCORCHING MOTHER OF GOD, I thought as I burnt all the taste buds off of my tongue. I regained mouth consciousness and the flavor shone through: BITTER. So bitter I deliberately fought my face muscles from twisting into a ghastly frown. I passed it back with a way-too-big gringa smile, and before it came for a second round, class was over.
During the next nine years, I’d learn a whole hell of a lot about mate, a pastime that many locals use as a litmus test to prove how truly Argentine an extranjero (foreigner) is.
I’d see yerba mate sold everywhere; it had its own aisle in supermarkets. I’d try it in numerous gourds: wood, metal, glass, dried pumpkin, or, as I’ve recently acquired, a cow hoof with fur and hoof intact.
I’d learn mate’s typically drunk in the afternoon during merienda—tea-time between midday lunch and late night Argentine dinners—and paired with crackers, cookies, or dulce de leche-injected churros.
Traveling across the country, I’d see mate is a household staple just as important as flour and sugar. I’d find out that it contains mateína, a stimulant similar to caffeine and a known appetite suppressant, making it the energy drink of choice for students. I’d watch footage of both the pope and fútbol God Lionel Messi drinking mate. I’d even invest in an electric kettle made especially for mate, heating water to the ideal 70-80°C temperature.
I’d get schooled in the many rules of mate. For example, the person who prepares the mate is the cebador, and only he or she has access to serve. It’s bad form to touch the bombilla (metal straw) once it’s plunked in. And you say thank you when you no longer want to partake in the drink circle.
I’d come to understand that drinking mate is a social pastime. You wouldn’t go to a café and order the infusion. Instead, you’d go to someone’s house, park, or plaza, to chat with friends and family.
On a recent afternoon, a friend stopped by to gossip. There was an unspoken understanding we’d be drinking mate. As the host, I took lead as cebadora. Desiring a zesty tweak, I decided to add orange and lemon peel for some citrusy brightness. A mate genius! After carefully preparing the drink, I handed it to my friend. He tried it and busted out the same face I made before I acquired a taste for the stuff. “This isn’t real mate,” he said, “but it’s still pretty good.”