Saturday, April 12, 2008

I'd like a Mate. Shaken, not stirred.

Now, by popular demand, you get to learn about Mate...

While preparing to go down to Montevideo, one of the things that we were told to look out for culturally was a drink called mate (pronounced mah-teh, with emphasis on the first syllable). It’s a hot drink made by steeping the leaves of the yerba mate plant in hot water and drunk from a gourd. Much like coffee or strong tea, mate contains caffeine and people down here were supposed to drink it all day and all night in order to keep up with their crazy lifestyles of late night parties and early rising for work. And, honestly, we weren’t disappointed when we arrived: most everyone does indeed drink it.

Drinkers of mate themselves aren’t hard to spot either. You see then walking down the street with a thermos of hot water under one arm along with a gourd-looking thing with a metal straw sticking out from it. The calabash gourd, itself called the mate, is usually covered in leather and can be decorated any way that you’d like. The metal straw is called a bombilla and strains the leaves as you drink (seems interesting to drink something hot through a metal straw, but that’s what they do). Also something you would notice are all the leather materas, or “mate bags” that people carry slung over their shoulders to hold their thermos and gourd when not in use.

To emphasize its popularity, I’ll point out that it is the National Drink in Uruguay, Argentina, and Paraguay and also has a firm footing in southern Brazil. And people drink it everywhere and at any time. I mentioned earlier that the senators and representatives even drink it while in session at the Legislative Palace. Every gas station that you go to in Argentina has hot water available to fill up your thermos, however you should think twice about drinking and driving. In Uruguay, drinking mate while driving is illegal and drinking it while on the city busses is also prohibited mostly due to the danger of spilling hot water on yourself or others.

Originally, mate was drunk by the Gauchos of Uruguay and Argentina. These original cowboys can attest to the nutritional value of the drink. Their diet generally consisted of meat and mate! It was also something to pass the time while they sat around the fire after a hard day’s work.

There are regional differences to mate. In Uruguay, it’s pretty much only drunk hot and in the calabash gourds. People are very particular about their gourds and even have separate ones if they decide to add sweet water or tea to the yerba leaves. They say that it has to be the certain type of gourd to bring out the flavor. I can’t tell any difference, it’s all pretty bitter. The people in Argentina are less “hard-core” about the gourds and sometimes prefer to drink it in smaller plastic or metal cups. But still the drink is mostly hot. Further north in the hotter regions of Brazil and Paraguay, people drink it more like a chilled drink with iced water or tea with lemon. Most of the plants harvested are located in Paraguay, where it originated. Also, in Paraguay, many people add other herbs to their yerba leaf concoction. Overseas, Syria has become the largest importer of yerba mate and it is a popular drink there and in Lebanon. I don’t know if they drink it any differently or if it is as popular as here.

Another thing that make drinking mate so appealing to me is the sharing culture that goes along with it. Many people drink it alone, but it’s very common to see couples walking down the street with one gourd and thermos between them or to see a group of people sitting in at a restaurant or in front of a house passing a gourd between each other. One person has the thermos and “prepares” the gourd by adding the leaves and the bombilla. Then hot water is poured into a cavity created on one side of the gourd. The preparer takes the first drink to test the preparation/flavor. If it is satisfactory, he refills it with water and passes it to the next person. You have to drink all the water until you make a slurping sound with the straw and then hand it back to the preparer. He will refill it and pass it back until you thank him while you return the gourd. I think it’s pretty cool to be able to share a drink in a community like that.

I don’t think that there is any equivalent in the U.S., although espressos, lattes, and other coffee drinks come close. There is a need in both our cultures for the stimulation of caffeine and therefore it’s pretty common to see many people going to work or class with drink of choice in hand. What we don’t have in the States is the idea of sharing our drinks: “What’s mine is mine and you’re not going to have any of my $4.50 double-shot vanilla-mint espresso.”

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