Maté Is The National Drink Of Argentina That Packs An Herbal Punch

While meals, coffee, and cocktails all offer the option for gathering and socializing, maté and the tradition surrounding its consumption is as communal as it gets. Maté, or yerba mate, is a tea-like beverage with a rich history. It's the national drink of Argentina made from the leaves of a shrub native to eastern Argentina, Paraguay, and southern Brazil. The dried leaves are steeped in hot or cold water to create an infusion with a taste as strong as its caffeine content.

Maté has an herbal flavor with a harshly bitter finish and contains as much caffeine as coffee. Like coffee, maté is an acquired taste, but it's acceptable to add citrus peels, citrus juice, or sugar to balance its bitterness. Maté leaves and stems are dried and packed into similar paper packaging as coffee grounds. Some brands sell leaves already flavored with citrus peels, herbs, or dried spices, however, most Argentinians prefer their maté pure and unembellished.

While a bitter and energizing drink may sound like coffee or tea at this stage, maté distinguishes itself first in how it's brewed, and even more importantly, in how it's served and enjoyed. While coffee grounds and tea leaves steep for a few minutes and are then removed from the liquid before consumption, you steep and drink maté simultaneously. Maté leaves are placed into a wooden, gourd-like cup (called a calabash or maté), which has a small space for the server to pour hot water. Then, a metal straw (bombilla) is inserted through the leaves to be immediately slurped before adding more hot water.

Maté serving and drinking traditions

The cultural significance of maté in Argentina is the sense of community and conversation it inspires. Just as Argentinian families and friends gather around a grill, or parilla, for a backyard cookout or "parillada," maté is a communal ritual wherein a group of people all sip from the same cup. Serving customs are taken very seriously in Argentina, and one person is in charge of preparing, pouring, and passing the cup to each participant.

The server, or cebador, adds the leaves to the maté, making a crevice for the bombilla while heating water over the stove. Once the water is steaming but not boiling, it's transferred to a thermos. Then, the cebador pours the first maté for themselves to drink before serving the person next to them. Each serving is only enough for two small sips. Each time a person receives their serving, they sip the water through the straw until it's gone and then hand the maté back to the server who then serves the next person in the circle.

Maté is rarely enjoyed alone and is often enjoyed multiple times a day. You could start the morning by passing maté around with your family as you eat breakfast. In the afternoon, friends and coworkers gather for a late-afternoon pick-me-up with cookies or pastries. Argentinians always have a maté, bombilla, and thermos on hand both in Argentina and while traveling abroad. Maté is an expression of hospitality and solidarity that all Argentinians proudly share.