Yerba mate (MA-tay) is in the holly family. It’s cultivated in northern Argentina and its leaves are dried and shredded into goldfish food-like flakes. In Argentina the “palos,” or stems, are left in. In Uruguay the stems are taken out. Uruguayans say Argentinian mate is “all sticks.” Argentinians say, “Uruguay is not a real country.”
To prepare mate first heat water. I almost wrote “boil,” but boiling is one of the cardinal sins of mate preparation. You’re less likely to offend an Argentinian by snorting the yerba than by boiling the water. They claim it changes the water’s “composition,” that it burns the yerba. What it does do is make steep faster, and thus less suitable for sharing, which is the primary objective of mate. Mate can be drunk alone, and if you drink enough mate you’ll inevitably drink it alone, just as in life you’ll eventually be all alone. Those around you will perish, and you’ll be sitting on a park bench somewhere, sipping mate.
While the water is heating prepare your gourd, or simply “mate.” Fill it two thirds full, tilt it and insert the straw at the low end so it digs in and touches the bottom. Some people prime the yerba with lukewarm water, claiming this makes it less likely to burn. I learned mate preparation from an Argentinian woman named Mercedes who yelled at me when it was too hot or too cold, and grumbled when it hadn’t been primed. I still remember the first time I prepared it well, passed it to her, and she said, after taking a sip, “Está bien.”
Once the yerba is primed add hot water, making sure not to get all the yerba wet at once. Pour a small quantity into the cavity created by the straw. Drink it yourself, drink it until it’s gone, then refill it and pass it to the left. Do not leave part of it un-drunk. And do not touch the straw. Hold the mate by the gourd, never the straw. Argentinians are adamant about this. I think they think holding the straw makes you look weak.
The one who prepares the mate is called the cebador/a and is in charge of all subsequent mate pours for that session. Being the cebador is a good feeling. It’s like commanding a large fleet of ships, except in this case it’s only one ship and it’s really a small wooden vessel meant for serving tea. However, with the position of cebador comes great responsibility. Argentinians will judge you on the quality of your preparation. If an Argentinian is evaluating you as a potential mate, your ability to “cebar” will make or break his/her decision. Is she going to spend the rest of her life with someone who can’t prepare mate? Have unskilled-at-mate-preparing babies? Spend afternoons in the park drinking lukewarm water and weeping?
Lately I’ve been drinking pre-prepared mate from grocery stores like PCC and Whole Foods. It’s becoming more common. Real mate is better, but to find the real mate drinkers you need to head south. Upon crossing into Argentina you’ll start to see them. In Chile you have to go a bit further south, at least south of Santiago.
The ritual of mate is not just the social aspect, the taste, or the satisfaction you get from doing something well. It’s all of these things. It’s synergy. So go to your local grocery store and buy a bag. Or better yet, buy a gourd (they sell good, polyurethane ones on Amazon), some yerba (Guayaki isn’t terrible, but Rosamonte or Cruz de Malta are better), and make some new friends.
Just remember not to boil the water. Or touch the straw).