Mate, also known as Chimarrão or Cimarrón, is a traditional South American beverage made from steeping the dried leaves of yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) in hot water. It is traditionally served in a calabash gourd and drunk through a metal straw called a bombilla. This straw has a flared end with small holes in that act like a sieve to filter out the chunky dried sticks and leaves from the water. It has many cultural associations with the people of South America and is often drunk as part of a social ritual or with cultural associations in mind. Mate is also available in convenient tea bags called Mate cocido but it is considered a completely different drink, with none of the cultural associations and never drunk in the same fashion.
History of Mate
Mate has been drunk in South America since pre-Columbian times by the Guarani people in the forests of Paraguay. Its origins are lost in legend but two main stories tell about it being given to the Guarani in return for favours given to the gods.
In the first of these the moon goddess Yari, with the goddess of the pink dusk clouds Arai, were walking on earth in human guise when they were threatened by a Jaguar. An old Guarani hermit saw the young women about to be attacked and saved them with an arrow. He then invited them to stay at his house with his family as it was Guarani custom to offer hospitality to visitors. During their stay there he told Yari that he lived in isolation because of fear and anxiety about his daughter losing her virtue and innocence. When the moon goddess returned to heaven she wondered what to offer the man for a prize and guided the old man, his wife and daughter into a dream where she showed them where the mate plant was growing. They went to the spot and found it whereupon the goddess descended once more and told them it was a symbol of friendship. She then bestowed immortality and an incorruptible heart upon the man’s daughter, making her the owner of the yerba. She also taught them how to prepare, toast and drink the mate and then left the earth again. In time the old couple passed on and their daughter, upon fulfilling her ritual obligations also left the earth to become the patron saint of the yerba crop.
A second legend tells how the Guarani tribe used to clear the forest to grow crops until the soil was no longer fertile, when they would have to move on. One old man was tired of moving and refused to go, preferring to stay where he was. His youngest daughter’s heart was split with the decision of whether to go with the tribe or stay with her father, but she decided to stay with her father. One day a shaman came to visit them and asked her what she wanted to feel happy. She did not answer but the old man asked that she be taken to the tribe that went away. The shaman gave him the yerba plant and taught him how to plant, pick and prepare the mate. He told them, “In this beverage, you will find an healthy company, even in the sad hours of the cruellest solitude,” and then went on his way. Sipping the herb the old man regained his strength and was able to resume the journey to catch up with the tribe, whereupon the drink that enabled this reunion was adopted by the whole tribe as a symbol of friendship and a comfort in solitude.
Whatever the true origins of mate it has been a staple ingredient of the Guarani household since pre-Columbian times and was first discovered by Spanish explorers who had sailed up the Parana river searching for the fabled El Dorado but become disillusioned and decided to settle. They met natives here who shared their traditional beverage with the explorers and revived their mind and bodies, and their instinct for fortune. Soon Mate was being exported across the world. It became so popular and had such powerful effects upon the health and vitality of the drinker that some Jesuits feared it was a pagan magic and tried to forbid its use but ended up only isolating themselves and losing all their faithful. Instead they realized their mistake and sanitized the herb by assigning Saint Thomas as its patron saint and allowed the creation of a huge industry across much of South America and Europe.
Health Benefits of Mate
Mate is has been documented as being anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antispasmodic, aiding weight loss by increasing fat burning and helping in mental clarity. It contains a wide array of vitamins and minerals and has been suggested to have significant oral cancer fighting activities if not drunk too hot. Its primary stimulant, mateine, is thought by many to be a stereoisomer of caffeine, meaning it has the same formula and sequence of atoms but differs in its three dimensional arrangement making it a completely different substance altogether. This may give it the same stimulant and smooth muscle relaxant properties as caffeine but without many of its side effects.
As well as its nutritional value mate is also considered good for the soul. Drinking it is often a form of meditation or reflection when on your own or as a form of social bonding when shared with friends. The idea is to allow the goodness to infuse into your body while stimulating and resting the mind. Engaging in mate drinking in this manner may be psychologically beneficial as are other kinds of meditation and social activities that help to develop stronger bonds between individuals.
Preparation of Mate
Mate has many cultural traditions and etiquette associated with it in South American culture. It is nearly always prepared in the same gourd that is almost completely filled to the top with yerba and then topped up with hot water around 70-80°C (160-180°F). Never use boiling water as this will make the mate bitter. It is possible to make mate in a coffee maker, french press or other device but it is best when made following the traditional method using a gourd and bombilla straw.
The most common method is to fill the gourd half to two-thirds of the way with yerba and cover the top of the gourd with the hand and turn upside down to allow the smaller particles to settle at the top. It is then tilted to a near sideways angle and shaken very gently with a sideways motion causing the yerba to settle further inside the gourd with the finest particles towards the opening and the larger pieces layered along one side. It is then carefully tilted back onto its base to minimize further disturbances and a little cold water added to moisten the mix. The straw is then inserted at an angle perpendicular to the slope so it reaches the furthest end of the gourd. The aim of all this is to get the smoothest, most consistent mate possible with the smallest particles at the top furthest from the straw’s filter and the sloped arrangement catching as much of the rest as possible as the liquid goes down.
In addition to preparing the drink the gourd is also traditionally “cured” before being used for the first time. To cure the gourd the inside is wetted and scraped with the tip of a teaspoon to remove a few particles from the inside. Mate and hot water is added next and left to sit overnight, with fresh water added over the next 24 hours as the gourd absorbs the mixture. Finally it is scraped out and emptied and then put in sunlight until completely dry. In Argentina it is often put next to a Parilla (barbecue grill) to add a smokey flavour. Sometimes a black mould will grow inside the gourd when it is stored wet, so it should be kept in a dry, well ventilated place and cleaned out periodically, although some people consider it an enhancement to the flavour.
Mate Culture and Customs
Mate is more than just a alternative to tea to the people of South America and is steeped in ritual and customs. It is traditionally drunk in social gatherings of family or friends where a single gourd is prepared and shared around a circle called a “roda de chimarrão”. When drunk in this ritual manner it has many elements similar to the North American rite of the calumet, the pipe of peace. One person called the cebador takes the role of the server who prepares the brew. The cebador makes the first batch and drinks it completely to ensure that it is free of particles and of good quality. This is considered an act of kindness and in some places it is even bad manners to pass the first brew as it may be too strong, too hot, too cold or excessively dusty and so this first batch is often called mate del zonzo (mate of the fool). Once the cebador has ensured the brew is correct it is refilled and passed to the person on the right who likewise drinks the entire gourd without thanking the server. This continues around the circle until the mate becomes lavado (“washed out” or “flat”) after around the tenth or more refill. When one has had enough mate then the cebador is politely thanked and the gourd passed back. It is considered rude to complain about the temperature of the water or to take too long to finish drinking, but making a sucking noise with the straw is completely acceptable. If sugar or honey are added then a separate gourd should be used to the sugarless one as it is considered bad for the gourd to be used for making both.
Variations of Mate
A popular variation of Mate in Paraguay, Northeastern Argentina and Western Brazil is Tereré. This is mate but prepared with cold water and served in a slightly larger vessel. In some parts of Argentina it is seen as a lesser form of Mate, but in Paraguay is considered superior to any other drink, especially on a hot day. It is often mixed with remedial herbs such as mint or lemongrass and sometimes made with fruit juices like lime and orange or pineapple juice. With fruit juice it is often called tereré ruso (Russian Tereré) due to the fact that it is more common with Slavic immigrants than with Spanish- and Guarani-speaking Paraguayans.