mate7(photos by Andrew Tan)

Those of you that have travelled to South America or have a South American friend may know that people in the region drink a particularly interesting-looking beverage.

In the southern cone of South America, most specifically in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, there is a drink that’s been around for hundreds of years: it’s called mate.

It’s important to note that it’s not pronounced like the English word “mate,” but rather almost like maté [mah’-tay], according to the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Mate is an infusion drink. A hollow calabash cup is filled with ‘yerba mate’ leaves (which look like tea leaves) that have been specially processed. Hot water is poured into the cup and a stainless steel or silver straw is used to filter the infused water.

tea stepsThere are many varieties of yerba mate. Most commonly, mate has a bitter taste, although it varies depending on the kind of yerba mate you get. Many people add sugar in order to add an extra flavour. Yerba mate comes from an indigenous tree which originated in the Paraguayan region. While it may look like marijuana, it certainly is not. They actually have nothing in common, but many people that don’t know about mate tend to think that it is some kind of drug.

In terms of its history, it is said that the Guaraní indigenous people used to consume it prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. When the Spanish colonized the region, mate consumption was expanded and it started to be commercialized. Paraguay became one of the main exporters together with Brazil. There are also many legends associated with the origin of mate. The legends tell the story of a Guaraní man and his granddaughter who were recompensed by the Guaraní supreme God “Tupá.” According to the legend, Tupá told them about this plant that had the ability to calm thirst, be a companion in times of solitude, and be an excellent gift for visitors. Regardless of the validity of the legend, there is no doubt that those are mate’s main attributes today.

Despite starting off in South America, mate has increased in its global presence today. Countries such as Syria and Lebanon import huge quantities since it was introduced. Also, here in North America, the main tea-sellers have marketed mate “tea”, to the extent that some even sell their own versions of the mate cup and straw.

Nowadays, people drink mate on a daily basis. Many substitute coffee with mate because it contains caffeine as well. One of its main, distinctive characteristics is that it can be part of a social ritual. People share the cup (which is called mate itself) and pass it around while telling stories, watching a football (soccer) match, or just getting through a working day. Mate is a sign of respect and friendship. If you receive an invitation to drink mate, it means that the person respects you.

If you ever get the chance to travel to Uruguay or Argentina, you will definitely see people walking in the streets drinking mate. It is consumed during all seasons and weather or climatic circumstances. The act of sharing the mate cup among friends or family is very characteristic of the friendliness with which Uruguayans have been characterized. The mate kit is used very widely. It consists of a leather bag that includes a mate, straw, yerba mate holder, and thermos for the hot water.

Many people who have never tried mate before find it too bitter, so they avoid it at altogether, but, like many things, mate is an acquired taste. If you give it a chance, though, it may change your life. Research has shown that mate has many benefits, and provides a high amount of antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins.

While it may be difficult here in Peterborough to find the actual cup and yerba mate leaves sold in South America, many tea-sellers here have their own mate tea and cups. If you find yourself drinking too much coffee, you should definitely give mate a chance.