I've a new addiction. Oddly enough, I was supposed to write an article for YogaCityNYC last year on this very subject, but the tea shops never wrote me back, so we dropped the story. Thankfully fate has intervened. Mate (as in mahtay - not your Australian friend) is a bitter green herb native to South America, which is made into a tea. Originally consumed by the indigenous people for medicinal purposes, mate became extremely popular in Paraguay in the 1500's as it was discovered by Spanish settlers. Throughout the 17th century it spread throughout the continent; the plant was domesticated, plantations were created and the process became industrialized in the 1900's. Today it is still beloved throughout South America, and is the national drink of Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay.
Yerba mate, as the plant is called or yerba for short, is dried, chopped up and then placed into a hollowed out receptacle made from just about anything; gourd being the most traditional, wood or tin cheap and easily available and any ol' orange or grapefruit doing in a pinch. This "cup" is called a mate too, which can be confusing to any novice. Then there's the bombilla, or mate straw, which is placed inside to filter out the leaves from the water. To make mate, hot (90 degrees being the optimum) water is poured over the yerba, into a mate, from a thermos or kettle. The water is infused with the herb's signature bitter taste, and is sipped out of the bombilla. Water is poured in round after round until the mate is considered flavorless, or "washed". It can also be sweetened with honey or sugar by adding the desired amount to the dry yerba.
Typically mate is enjoyed in a communal setting, each person drinking one whole pour and passing it in a circle. And it's everywhere! People drink mate in public parks, on benches, at work, at home, for birthdays, holidays, Sunday bbqs and even on the road! In every gas station across Argentina you can find traveling pre-filled mates, thermoses and instant hot water dispensers. Vendors also sell fresh pastries all over Buenos Aires specifically to be eaten with mate.
There are a whole bunch of rules that one should follow in this ritual and breaking the etiquette is actually considered rude. I read up before partaking in a mate-fest, resulting in me being completely high strung and not really enjoying neither it's purported relaxing and meditative effects, nor it's group bonding. It seemed I was the only one hell bent on following any sort of rules or order and I was a teensy bit irritated when my boyfriend kept absent-mindedly skipping me. It is my opinion that mate is better consumed alone by Northern Americans who might have a proclivity towards OCD.
So I do. I'm sitting here with my little wooden mate as I write. Mate does seem to perk me up a bit and provides me with a lovely morning ritual without the jolt of coffee. There are several (debated) health benefits such as it's high antioxidant/mineral/cancer fighting/immune boosting/anti-inflammatory abilities which I believe aren't as high in the overpriced, Americanized, fancy health store, single-serving tea bag version. My entire kit and caboodle was purchased for about $10 US in an Argentine grocery store. I've seen bags of mate at some fancy US stores, and the prices are outrageous at about $9 for a tiny bag. My 500g bag of fancy yerba mate set me back about $1.75.
So, the moral of the story is that we all need more Latin American friends. If you're laid back - to enjoy the lovely communal ritual of mate drinking with, and if your not - to bring you some back.