Yerba. It’s the stuff we pour into a wooden guampa or cup early in the morning or throughout bone-chilling days so we can pour body-thawing hot water over the yerba leaves and suck it all out of the metal straw or bombilla. The drink is called mate (pronounced mah-tay) and is like a hot tea and is as versatile as they come with never-ending options of adding fresh or dried herbs like mint, chamomile, anise or lemongrass among hundreds of others for flavoring goodness.
It, along with its ice-cold counterpart tereré, is the drink of Paraguay. Like the Guaraní language, which upon speaking even a simple phrase of greeting sends you straight into the heart of a Paraguayan, drinking mate with friend or stranger alike is sure to win you some “culturally integrated” gold stars in the minds of your Paraguayan neighbors. That’s because drinking mate is a communal tradition.
Unlike in the States where we grab a coffee to go as we race and rush onto our next Very Important Activity, mate is sipped and savored and almost always taken in company, sharing and drinking from the same cup.
Drinking mate is even said to be good for you, as the yerba is filled with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. I especially liked the slogan of this brand on the good qualities of yerba mate:
Mate isn’t new to my life since living in Paraguay because my world-traveling husband spent a month in Paraguay during his nearly year abroad after college graduation. There he picked up the mate-drinking habit, bought himself a good-looking equipo – thermos, cup and straw – and kept on sipping away upon his return to the States. Not a well-known tradition in the States, it was slightly suspicious what he drank from that wooden cup of mystery leaves.
Now in Paraguay, I’m fully on board and have embraced the lovely tradition that is drinking mate. Not only is it necessary for warmth on some chilly days, but it’s communal bonding and fun once you set your mind to not think twice about sharing a straw with a stranger. Not to worry, there’s a system in place to deal with germs. When you’re sick you always say “gracias” to indicate “thanks, but no thanks” if offered to partake in a round of mate.
Since mate is integral to life in Paraguay, of course we drank it with my parents while they visited. We made up different flavor combinations like refreshing mint or cozy anise. My parents really enjoyed it and we had fun sharing with them one of the most prevalent traditions of our new country.
How many of you have ever tasted mate? Did you like it? For you seasoned pros, what’s your favorite flavor combination? Mate dulce, anyone?