Argentina's Favorite Tea
I got an email from my mom after she read our post about Hostel Achalay asking what the heck 'mate' was. I explained that it is maté, not mate, a tea not a person, and is actually pronounced mah-tay. Then it dawned on me that we have mentioned this Argentine favorite many times, but never explained what it is or its significance. To avoid anymore confusion, or rumors about my mysterious 'mate,' here's the low-down on our experience with maté.
Maté is a bitter, slightly sweet tea, also known as Yerba Maté, and is just as much a part of Argentine culture as Evita, parillas or Diego Maradona. It is enjoyed by both young and old Argentines, and at any given time you can find people shooting the breeze with a thermos of hot water in one hand and gourd and bombilla in the other.
The gourd can be made out of an actual gourd, like ours, or it can be wood, glass, ceramic or metal. The bombilla is the metal straw which has a filter on one end and blocks the loose tea leaves from getting sucked up with the tea. Fabulous invention!
Maté can be really rough to drink the first few times, especially if the water is too hot or there is too much tea in the gourd. The best way we've learned to make it is to fill the gourd about 2/3 full with dry tea, then fill it to the top with hot, NOT boiling water. The water temperature is very important and it will be super bitter and nasty if you boil the water and burn the tea leaves.
You can also add sugar to help cut the bitterness, but that's kind of like adding Sprite to red wine, and you don't really get the full effect of the beverage. I recommend trying to enjoy it as is, bitterness and all, as soon as possible.
It's traditional to share maté with friends and, as a traveler, is a huge honor to be invited to take part in this ritual. It usually works like this: someone fills the gourd with dry tea, then each person takes turns filling the gourd with hot water, drinking it dry, then filling it again and passing it to the next person. Yes...everyone uses the same straw (gasp!), and so far we don't have any weird diseases or lip-critters.
In the states, Yerba Maté is pretty easy to find in tea bags, but I think it is different from the loose leaf stuff we buy here. I think the best place to find traditional Argentine maté would be in a specialty grocery store, World Market, or maybe a holistic/herbal supplement shop.