Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Brazil and especially Uruguay partake in the tradition of Yerba Mate. Just to be clear, there is no accent on the “e” of mate. It’s pronounced “MAH-tay” with the accent on the first syllable. Self-righteous marketers in the U.S. have begun putting an accent on the e of mate in order to differentiate it from the English word of the same spelling. A better solution would be to change the spelling altogether.

More to the point, sipping the herbal infusion tea mate is a very cultural, communal event. “Hacemos un mate”, is a catch phrase between friends that means much more than just getting together and having tea. Especially because of how this particular tea is consumed. The dry leaves (the yerba (herb) or hierba) are put into the mate (the thing you drink out of) and the “bombilla” (metal straw with built in filter) is inserted. Then the mate is filled repeatedly with hot (usually scalding in my opinion) water.

The Rules:

1. Everyone drinks out of the same mate. This for Americans espcially can be disconcerting at first since we have a very “this is my space, this is my property” attitude. I was this way as well: “Haven’t they ever thought about sharing germs!!” This is not the point. The process is:

  • The “cebador” (feeder) pours the first mate and drinks it or spits it out as it’s pretty strong. (This I also find hilarious as you will see that the rules below contradict the spitting of the first mate)
  • Then the cebador pours a mate for the first person in the group and they drink it, completely. That person then passes the mate back to the cebador.
  • The cebador then fills the mate again and passes it to the second person. They drink and pass back.
  • Saying “gracias” means that you are done drinking and do not want anymore and you will be skipped in the next rotation.

2. DO NOT, under any circumstances, move the bombilla. This is forbidden and will “wash” or spoil or spend the yerba. I have developed a theory around this called “The Conservation of Yerba” which is loosely based on physics principles like the Conservation of Mass and the Conservation of Energy.

3. DO NOT, under any circumstances, boil the water before “cebando” mate (cebar loosely means “to feed” but is only used when referring to mate) as this will also “wash” the yerba.

4. DO NOT, under any circumstances, add cold water to the mate itself. Even if it’s scalding hot (which it usually is) you just have to wait.

The flavor profile of yerba mate can best be described as bitter, strong, herbal and green. After all, it is an herb and it is, in fact, green. But once the taste is acquired, it can become quite a habit. In Uruguay especially, people have huge mates and walk down the street carrying them with their 1 Liter thermoses under their arms on the way to work.