Yerba mate tea is much more than the latest craze touted by health aficionados, which there are many. Conveniently packaged in tea bags, cans, and bottles, and now commonly sold in a variety of shops, mate has hit the mainstream. Nevertheless, what exactly is yerba mate? Moreover, what cultural meaning does it have?
Like coffee and chocolate, steeped in history and culture , yerba mate brought European colonials and indigenous communities of South America into close and consistent contact. As a result, mate transcends languages. It is inherent in Portuguese speaking Brazil and Spanish speaking countries of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Furthermore, the ritual of drinking mate traveled with Lebanese and Syrian immigrants back to East Asia, predominantly in the Druze community.
Commodities, fascinatingly, have a culture. What is widely known is, by the 16th century, it became prevalent among Spanish conquistadors in one of the oldest cities in South America and the modern-day capital of Paraguay, Asuncion. With their sustained interaction, the Guarani introduced the Spaniards to yerba mate tea.
So, What Is Mate and How Is It Prepared?
Yerba mate is a species of the Holly family that begins as a shrub eventually maturing up to 15 meters. The leaves and branches are then harvested, resulting in the dried tea widely consumed. The most significant producers of yerba mate are Brazil and Argentina.
One fills a gourd, traditionally made from calabash but now comprise of silicon, plastic, steel, or even ceramic with the tea leaves. A ritualistic preparation of the gourd is paramount. One must be careful when preparing mate as not to scorch the tea leaves. Then a bombilla, a metal straw with a filtered end, is inserted into the tea leaves. Once in place, it will not be moved until the mate is flat or flavorless.
Mate is first and foremost a social activity. As the national drink of Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and common in parts of Brazil, Chile, Lebanon, and Syria, individuals gather around the gourd and bond through the collective experience of drinking mate. One person, known as the preparer or cebador, prepares and passes the yerba mate amongst the group. This person is also responsible for ensuring the taste and that every member partakes.
It is important to note that although folks share the container not the liquid. One must drink the entire gourd and then hand it back to the cebador to refill and pass on. When one has had enough, one plainly says thank you.
Although, mate is a communal experience many do drink it alone, in the morning, afternoon, or night. Yet, it is the shared experiences that make mate so delightful and vital. With thermoses and specialized carrying cases, mate is never too far out of one’s reach. It is a ubiquitous tea, drunk from a peculiar cup but succeeds in bringing people together. From its origins in indigenous communities to the folklore of the Argentine gaucho, mate transcends barriers and borders. Various political leaders, celebrities, athletes, and even the pope enjoy mate.
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