Content and Editorial Director
In South America, if someone visits your home, the first thing you say is “Hello.” The second is, “Would you like a mate?”
Also known as yerba mate, cimarrón and chimarrão, mate (pronounced ”mah-tay”) is a drink that’s hugely popular in Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and some areas of Brazil. In these countries, people tend to consume it about six times more frequently than coffee, with some aficionados admitting to drinking liters of it daily. And this could actually be a good thing, considering yerba mate’s impressive range of health benefits.
Mate was originally consumed by the Indigenous Guaraní people for medicinal purposes, and its health benefits have since been confirmed in scientific studies. One research team found that a high dose of yerba mate extract deactivated E. coli, a bacteria that causes food poisoning with serious side effects. Yerba mate also contains saponins, which are natural compounds with anti-inflammatory properties. And studies show the antioxidant power of yerba mate is higher than that of green tea. Mate contains beneficial plant nutrients, seven out of nine essential amino acids, as well as nearly every vitamin and mineral your body needs. And it might even help with weight loss. In a 12-week study, people given 3 grams of yerba mate powder per day lost an average of 1.5 pounds, and also reduced their waist-to-hip ratio by 2%, which indicates a loss of belly fat. And with 85 milligrams of caffeine per cup, mate provides an energy boost more powerful than your typical morning java.
Ready to imbibe? Here are some things novices need to know. Yerba mate has an earthy taste that’s somewhat bitter, and is made by drying out a yerba mate plant’s leaves and then soaking them in hot water. The drink is served in an ornate mate cup, which is commonly made from wood, glass or a calabash gourd. Mate is sipped through a metal straw, known as a bombilla. This straw has a filter at the bottom that separates the mate infusion from the leaves and stems.
In South America, yerba mate is far more than just a drink. Gathering over yerba mate is a social and cultural tradition that brings families and friends together. Being offered mate is a sign of respect, and if you’re lucky enough to be included in a “yerba mate circle,” where a group of friends shares in the magic elixir, here are some rules of etiquette you’ll want to follow.
First, you’ll be sharing a straw, so don’t participate if you’re not comfortable with that or feeling ill. Second, never help yourself to mate. In every mate-sharing circle, there will be a designated server called a cebador, so wait to be offered a sip by them. The first mate poured will always be the most bitter, and traditionally, the cebador will consume it. The bombilla (metal straw) should never be touched, and definitely not used to stir the mate because it can cause the herbs to get caught in the filter and spoil the drink. Sip the full cup without nursing it, finishing your serving within two to three minutes. Use your right hand to return the cup to the cebador, because to pass it with your left indicates disrespect. The cebador will refill the mate once you’ve returned it and hand it to the next person. Though it feels counterintuitive, only say gracias when you don’t want more mate. If you’d like more mate, pass the gourd back and stay silent. This means you will receive another pouring when it’s your turn once again.
If you’re not fortunate enough to be invited into a mate circle during your travels, you can still enjoy this beverage at home, no sharing required. There are lots of companies that offer starter kits, like this one from Matero, with a handmade gourd, bombilla and mate. Some coffee shops in the U.S. are now offering brewed mate, and you can buy mate-based drinks at grocery stores like Whole Foods. But our suggestion? Pull out your passport and head to South America to sip your mate with the locals.
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