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I remember shortly after arriving in Argentina going to visit a friend’s house. It was only as I was about to leave I noticed a kind of wooden cup with metal tube sticking out of the top, filled with green leaves. I was pretty sure it was some drug paraphernalia at the time!

yerba mate y bombilla

After that I noticed it everywhere – people drinking yerba mate, a kind of green tea which is popular all over Argentina. It can be drunk at any time of the day: for breakfast, lunch, merienda or long into the night, and is usually accompanied with a long gossip!

Yerba is the name for the plant, or the leaves used to make the drink. Mate is the name for the drink made by infusing the leaves (and often stems, palitos) with hot (not boiling) water. I was surprised when I first saw kettles with two symbols on them, one for boiling and a little mate symbol for ~70 C (158 F) water. Mate is also used to refer to the gourds used to hold the drink.

Pava por mateSwitch on a kettle for boiling water / water for mate

It tastes amargo (bitter) when mixed with just the yerba and water, but many Argentines add sugar which makes it much smoother to drink. It is drunk through a bombilla or (usually metal) straw with a bulbous end to filter out the leaves at one end and is passed around to anyone in the vicinity!

It is a very social drink and usually one person in the group will be the servedor and keep topping up the mate with fresh water from a Thermos, sugar and replacing the yerba once it starts getting too weak. It is associated with many traditions and customs built around drinking it, which we will talk about in the following episode.

For this week, we hope you enjoy us discussing “Mate 101”… the podcast, as always, is exclusively in Spanish: