Walking around Buenos Aires, you can barely go a couple blocks without seeing someone drinking mate, and so for this quiet day, we too, take a sip. Get your cup in today’s photo gallery.
On the streets of Buenos Aires, resting on his car’s passenger door, a cab driver takes a break from sipping on a metal straw and lazily asks, “Necesitan taxi?” A lack of an answer does not matter – in fact, you’d probably be troubling him if you did take him up on the offer. He’s drinking mate. With the trademark cup in hand, and the requisite thermos snug under his arm, all else that any mate drinker really needs is, well, more time.
It’s hard to go a couple street blocks, or venture past a park, and not see someone relaxingly sipping on mate – seemingly the South American drink of choice. Despite its ubiquity, a week into our stay in Buenos Aires, we had yet to partake in a round of drinking the earthy liquid.
“You still haven’t tried mate?” our Argentine friend Luisa Novelli asked us with a face that reflected a degree of shock. Showing true Argentine hospitality, Luisa and her friend Macerena Munoz showed up the next day, mate in hand.
The tea is the product of the yerba plant, found in the western flat lands of Argentina and central-South America. Both the leaves and stems are crushed and dried to form a flaky mix that looks much like dried oregano. The tea is so abundant that a half-kilo (one pound) costs little more than seven Argentine pesos (a shy over two dollars).
Three accessories are required to bring the tea to life. The bowl, a cup formed out of a hollowed out gourd is the most common version. Some mate drinkers may take it a step further, drinking out of a hollow cow’s hoof. We, luckily, were drinking out of the gourd variant tonight.
Before adding mate, a chunky metal straw, called a bombilla, is placed in the cup. Either perforated with small holes or a spring like bottom, the base filters the tealeaves from being sucked up.
Once the straw is in, mate is packed into the cup. While the tea we’re accustomed to drinking back home develops its flavor after being steeped in hot water for an extended period of time, mate hits perfection moments after being doused in liquid – and that’s the reason why a thermos is always near by.
Before handing us our first cup of mate, Macerena explained the etiquette that comes with drinking with others, which really consists of one rule, say “thank you” only when you’ve had your fill. Argentines are likely to offer mate to newly made friends. Their brethren across the river in Uruguay, will most likely not. Either way, it’s not exactly polite to refuse an offer at a sip.
We had been advised that the drink was an acquired taste. Our first cup was a cold version using lemon juice, perfect for the hot Argentine summer. The mix of the earthy taste of mate and sharp bite of lemon juice reminded us of a perfect blend of lemonade and ice tea. Rounds and rounds of the drink were shared. Brian and I joked about how we we’re going to make the Argentine style of mate drinking fashionable stateside.
With the cold lemon juice tapped, we moved on to the hot version.
The heat pulls out the true flavor of mate. In the states, when “mate” is sipped, it comes in the familiar tea bag form, with enough water to temper its taste. Here, with a cup packed full of mate, the strong and bitter taste comes out in full force. And it’s a force that we regrettably were not up to tonight. Both Brian and I discretely held our grimaces. After politely accepting two hot cups, we handed back the bowl with a smile, this time saying “thank you” to ensure another cup would not be passed back.