Argentina: a step by step guide of how to drink MATE

By Mariel Matze
The Argentina Independent

I learned to drink mate during my first months in Argentina on slow lunch shifts while waitressing. At first, I watched my co-workers pass the little gourd of steaming herbs around with intrigue, too intimidated by their unspoken cultural codes to accept it.

Finally, I got up the nerve to ask about mate-drinking etiquette. As they named off “dos” and “don’ts”, I remembered the single observation I had made while watching them: they do not touch the straw. Eager to show off my know-how, I shouted excitedly, “And you don’t touch the bombilla!”

The entire kitchen turned and gaped at me. In my still-sketchy Spanish, I had confused the words for “metal mate straw” and “panties”.

To help you avoid learning the hard way, we have broken it down. Pretty soon, you will be cebando a rueda de mateyourself.

Basic How-To

1. Bring the water to 70-80°C, never boiling, which “burns” the yerba and ruins the taste.
2. Fill the cup three-quarters full of yerba.

Mate hand dust (Photo by Benjamin Pender)

3. When pouring your herbs into your cup, a cloud of green dust will rise. That dust, when wet, dissolves into the water and travels up through the bombillaupon the first sips. Unlike the steeped leaves, it has an abrasive, gritty taste. To remove the dust from the leaves, place your palm on the rim of the cup, turn it upside down, shake, and turn it right side up again. You should have a faint green circle on your hand. Blow it away and repeat until no more circles appear.
4. Turn the cup right side up carefully, letting the yerba settle at a 45-degree angle.
5. It is polite to ask how your friends prefer their mate: amargo (bitter) or dulce (sweet)?
6. Pour in a bit of cold or warm water into the cavity at the bottom. Wait about 30 seconds for the yerba to absorb it. Repeat. Place the bombilla in the cavity. Then pour the hot water, filling the mate to the brim.
7. When pouring, some yerba will get wet and some might float to the top. Do not worry about dousing all of it. The dryyerba will submerge in time, allowing the mate to maintain its flavour a little longer.

The mate is ready! What Now?

The cebador will now prepare and distribute the mate. Firstly they will take one for the team in drinking the first few sips, which can be disagreeably strong. They will then pass the mate along to the first friend, who will drink and pass it directly back to them for water refills.

Do not touch the bombilla (straw)! Hold the mate by the gourd or cup. Unlike a soft drink, the straw is never held between the fingers when you drink. If it gets clogged, tell the cebador, but do not stir.

The mate cup will always be passed to you full and if you accept it, you will pass it back empty. It is fine to drink slowly, just make you sure you do not keep others waiting for more than a few minutes.

Handoff (Photo by Beatrice Murch)

Do not blow bubbles. Yeah. Don’t do that.

Do not ask for sugar, complain that the mate is too hot, or ask if this is hygienic. Criticising can offend thecebador, who is often very proud of their role. While some are concerned at sharing the bombilla, mateenthusiasts say that is exactly the point: sharing a bombilla is an honour, a gesture of intimacy and trust. If you do not want the mate, just politely decline.

Don’t say thank you. That is, unless you have had enough. A “gracias” when passing the mate back to its owner is a signal to stop passing you mate.

After the yerba becomes lavada, scoop it out into a bin and wash your cup so it is ready for the next rueda de mate.

Of course, everyone makes their mate differently, so you will likely hear plenty about your friends’ own methodologies. But regardless of how quickly you become a gran cebador, remember that the best part ofmate is not actually mate, but the conversations it brews.