Mate (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈmate]), also known as chimarrão (Portuguese: [ʃimaˈxɐ̃ũ]) or cimarrón, is a traditional South American infused drink. It is prepared from steeping dried leaves of yerba mate (llex paraguariensis, known in Portuguese as erva mate) in hot water. It is the national drink in Argentina, though Paraguay and Uruguay also happen to claim nationality over the beverage, and drinking it is a common social practice in parts of Brazil, Chile, eastern Bolivia, Lebanon and Syria. In Brazil, it is considered to be a tradition typical of the “Gauchos”, term commonly used to describe residents of the South American pampas, chacos, or Patagonian grasslands, found principally in parts of Argentina, Uruguay, Southern Chile, and Southern Region, Brazil. The drink contains caffeine.
Mate is served with a metal straw from a shared hollow calabash gourd. The straw is called a bombilla in Latin American Spanish, a bomba in Portuguese, and a masassa in Arabic. The straw is traditionally made of silver. Modern commercially available straws are typically made of nickel silver, called Alpaca, stainless steel, or hollow-stemmed cane. The gourd is known as a mate or a guampa, while in Brazil it has the specific name of chimarrão or cuia. Even if the water comes in a very modern thermos, the infusion is traditionally drunk from mates or cuias. However, "tea-bag" type infusions of mate (mate cocido) have been on the market in Argentina for many years under such trade names as "Cruz de Malta" and in Brazil under the name "Mate Leão".
As with other brewed herbs, yerba mate leaves are dried, chopped, and ground into a powdery mixture called yerba. The bombilla acts as both a straw and a sieve. The submerged end is flared, with small holes or slots that allow the brewed liquid in, but block the chunky matter that makes up much of the mixture. A modern bombilla design uses a straight tube with holes, or spring sleeve to act as a sieve.
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The word is properly spelled "mate" in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, though some English sources prefer "maté." The accent on the final letter is a hypercorrection intended to indicate that the word is distinct from the common English word "mate," meaning a partner. The multicultural Yerba Mate Association of the Americas states that it is always improper to accent the second syllable, since doing so confuses the word with the unrelated Spanish word meaning "I killed."
In Brazil, traditionally prepared mate is known as chimarrão, although in areas near the border with Uruguay the word mate is also used.
The Spanish "cimarrón" means "rough," "brute," or "barbarian," but is most widely understood to mean "feral," and is used in almost all of Latin America for domesticated animals that have become wild. The word was then used by the people who colonized the region of the Río de la Plata to describe the natives' rough and sour drink, drunk with no other ingredient to soften the taste.
The method of preparing the mate infusion varies considerably from region to region, and it is hotly debated which method yields the finest outcome. However, nearly all methods have some common elements. The beverage is traditionally prepared in a gourd recipient called also mate or guampa in Spanish and cuia in Portuguese. The gourd is nearly filled with yerba, and hot water (typically at 70–80 °C [160–180 °F], never boiling) is added.
The most common preparation involves a careful arrangement of the yerba within the gourd before adding hot water. In this method, the gourd is first filled one-half to three-quarters of the way with yerba. After that, any additional herbs may be added for either health or flavor benefits; a practice most common in Paraguay, where people acquire herbs from a local yuyera (herbalist) and use the mate as a base for their herbal infusions. When the gourd is adequately filled, the preparer typically grasps it with the full hand, covering and roughly sealing the opening with the palm. Then the mate is turned upside-down, and shaken vigorously, but briefly and with gradually decreasing force, in this inverted position causing the finest, most powdery particles of the yerba to settle toward the preparer's palm and the top of the mate.
Once the yerba has settled, the mate is carefully brought to a near-sideways angle, with the opening tilted just slightly upward of the base. The mate is then shaken very gently with a side-to-side motion. This further settles the yerba inside the gourd so that the finest particles move toward the opening and the yerba is layered along one side. The largest stems and other bits create a partition between the empty space on one side of the gourd and the lopsided pile of yerba on the other.
After arranging the yerba along one side of the gourd, the mate is carefully tilted back onto its base, minimizing further disturbances of the yerba as it is re-oriented to allow consumption. Some avalanche-like settling is normal, but is not desirable. The angled mound of yerba should remain, with its powdery peak still flat and mostly level with the top of the gourd. A layer of stems along its slope will slide downward and accumulate in the space opposite the yerba (though at least a portion should remain in place).
All of this careful settling of the yerba ensures that each sip contains as little particulate matter as possible, creating a smooth-running mate. The finest particles will then be as distant as possible from the filtering end of the straw. With each draw, the smaller particles would inevitably move toward the straw, but the larger particles and stems filter much of this out. A sloped arrangement provides consistent concentration and flavor with each filling of the mate.
Now the mate is ready to receive the straw. Many people choose to pour warm water into the mate before adding the straw, while others insist that the straw is best inserted into dry yerba. Wetting the yerba by gently pouring cool water into the empty space within the gourd until the water nearly reaches the top, and then allowing it to be absorbed into the yerba before adding the straw, allows the preparer to carefully shape and "pack" the yerba's slope with the straw's filtering end, which makes the overall form of the yerba within the gourd more resilient and solid. Dry yerba, on the other hand, allows a cleaner and easier insertion of the straw, though care must be taken so as not to overly disturb the arrangement of the yerba. Such a decision is entirely a personal or cultural preference. The straw is inserted with one's thumb on the upper end of the straw, at an angle roughly perpendicular to the slope of the yerba, so that its filtering end travels into the deepest part of the yerba and comes to rest near or against the opposite wall of the gourd.
Now the yerba may be brewed. If the straw was inserted into dry yerba, the mate must first be filled once with cool water as above, then be allowed to absorb it completely (which generally takes no more than two or three minutes). Treating the yerba with cool water before the addition of hot water is essential, as it protects the herb from being scalded and from the chemical breakdown of some of its desirable nutrients. Hot water may then be added by carefully pouring it, as with the cool water before, into the cavity opposite the yerba, until it reaches almost to the top of the gourd when the yerba is fully saturated. Care should be taken to maintain the dryness of the swollen top of the yerba beside the edge of the gourd's opening.
Once the hot water has been added, the mate is ready for drinking, and it may be refilled many times before becoming washed out (lavado) and losing its flavor. When this occurs, the mound of yerba can be pushed from one side of the gourd to the other, allowing water to be added along its opposite side; this revives the mate for additional re-fillings.
Although it can be served in this traditional way, it is now more of a common drink. The tea bag variety 'mate leão' is brewed as you would brew tea in your own house: sweeten it and refrigerate it for later consumption.
Mate is traditionally drunk in a particular social setting, such as family gatherings or with friends. In Brazil and Argentina, the same gourd (cuia) and straw (bomba/bombilla) are used by everyone drinking. One person (known in Portuguese as the preparador or in Spanish as the cebador) assumes the task of server. Typically, the cebador fills the gourd and drinks the mate completely to ensure that it is free of particulate matter and of good quality. In some places passing the first brew of mate to another drinker is considered bad manners, as it may be too cold or too strong; for this reason the first brew is often called mate del zonzo (mate of the fool). The cebador subsequently refills the gourd and passes it to the next drinker who likewise drinks it all, without thanking the server. When there is no more tea, the straw makes a loud sucking noise, that is not considered rude. The ritual proceeds around the circle in this fashion until the mate becomes lavado ("washed out" or "flat"), typically after the gourd has been filled about ten times or more depending on the yerba used (well-aged yerba mate is typically more potent, and therefore provides a greater number of refills) and the ability of the cebador. When one has had his fill of mate, he or she politely thanks the cebador passing the mate back at the same time. It is considered rude to complain about the temperature of the water or to take too long to finish drinking.
Some drinkers like to add sugar or honey, creating mate dulce (sweet mate), instead of sugarless mate amargo (bitter mate). It is considered bad for the gourd (especially for the natural (squash or wood) ones) to be used for mate dulce so it is normal for households with drinkers of both kinds to have two separate gourds.
Traditionally, natural gourds are used, though wood vessels, bamboo tubes and gourd-shaped mates, made of ceramic or metal (stainless steel or even silver) are also common. In Brazil, the gourd is traditionally made out of the porongo or cabaça fruit shell. Gourds are commonly decorated with silver, sporting decorative or heraldic designs with floral motifs.
Drinking the yerba mate is considered to be more than just good for the body; it's also good for the soul. Drinking it can be a form of meditation or reflection - allowing the goodness to infuse into the body while stimulating and resting the mind. Those who share the mate join in a kind of bond of total acceptance and friendship. Generally the server will start a new infusion and then take the first drink. This is considered an act of kindness by the other people in the circle, because usually the first serving is considered the worst.
Both the wood vessels and the gourds must undergo curing to get a better taste before being used for the first time and to ensure the long life of the gourd. Typically, to cure a gourd, the wet inside is first scraped with the tip of a teaspoon to remove loose gourd particles. Mate herb and hot water is added next, and the mixture poured into the gourd. The mixture is left to sit overnight and the water is topped off periodically through the next 24 hours as the gourd absorbs the water. Finally the gourd is scraped out, emptied, and put in sunlight until completely dry. Drying the gourd near a Parilla (barbecue grill) is common in Argentina and adds a smokey flavor to the gourd.
It is common for a black mold to grow inside a poorly scraped gourd when it is stored wet. Some people will clean this out, others consider it an enhancement to the mate flavor. Storing the gourd empty and in a well ventilated place, like an open shelf, is the better way.
In-vivo and in-vitro studies are showing that yerba mate exhibits significant cancer-fighting activity. In 1995, research at the University of Illinois found yerba mate to inhibit the proliferation of oral cancer cells.
On the other hand, researchers in Mississippi found that both cold and hot water extractions of popular commercial yerba mate products contained high levels (8.03 to 53.3 ng/g dry leaves) of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (i.e. Benzo[a]pyrene). However, these potential carcinogenic compounds originate from commercial drying process of the maté leaves, which involves smoke from the burning of wood, much like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons found in wood smoked meat.
Other studies have highlighted limited evidence showing an association between esophageal cancer and hot mate drinking. Some research has suggested that this effect is almost entirely a consequence of hot mate's temperature; similar links to cancer have been found for tea and other beverages generally consumed at high temperatures. While drinking mate at very hot temperatures is considered as "probably carcinogenic to humans" on the IARC Group 2A carcinogens list, mate itself is not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans.
The Guaraní (Guarani, in Brazilian Portuguese) people started drinking mate in the region that now includes Paraguay, southern Brazil, south-easthern Bolivia, north-east Argentina, and Uruguay. The Guaraní have a legend that says that the Goddesses of the Moon and the Cloud came to the Earth one day to visit it but they instead found a Yaguareté (a jaguar) that was going to attack them. An old man saved them, and, in compensation, the Goddesses gave the old man a new kind of plant, from which he could prepare a "drink of friendship".
There is another drink that can be prepared with specially cut dry leaves, very cold water and, optionally, lemon or another fruit juice, called tereré. It is very common in Paraguay, northeastern Argentina and in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. After pouring the water, it is considered proper to "wait while the saint has a sip" before the first person takes a drink.
In Uruguay and Brazil the traditional gourd is usually big with a corresponding large hole. In Argentina (especially in the capital, Buenos Aires) the gourd is small and has a small hole, and people sometimes add sugar for flavor.
In Uruguay it is common to see people walking around the streets toting a mate and a thermos with hot water. In some parts of Argentina, gas stations sponsored by yerba mate producers provide free hot water to travelers, specifically for the purpose of drinking during the journey. There are disposable mate sets with a plastic mate and straw, and sets with a thermos flask and stacking containers for the yerba and sugar inside a fitted case. There is a national law In Uruguay that prohibits drinking mate while driving, because it caused many accidents of people getting scalded with hot water while driving.
In Argentina, mate cocido (cooked mate) is made with a teabag or leaves and drunk from a cup or mug, with or without sugar and milk. Since 2001, a tea and coffee company from Mar del Plata exports its production of mate teabags to Poland. In Brazil, mate is considered to be a tradition typical of the “Gaúchos”, name given to those born in Rio Grande do Sul.
Most urban Chileans do not drink mate, but travel narratives such as Maria Graham's Journal of a Residence in Chile, show that there is a long history of mate drinking in central Chile. Many rural Chileans drink mate, in particular in the southern regions, particularly Chiloé and Magallanes, perhaps due to the influence of neighboring areas of Argentina.
In some provinces of the Middle Eastern countries of Syria and Lebanon it is also common to drink mate. The custom of drinking mate came from Arabs who moved to South America during the early twentieth century, adopted the habit, and kept it after returning home. Syria is the biggest importer of yerba mate in the world, importing 15,000 tons a year. It is mostly the Druze community in Syria and Lebanon who maintain the culture and practice of mate.
According to a major retailer of mate in San Luis Obispo, California, by 2004 mate had grown to about 5% of the overall natural tea market in North America. Loose Mate is commercially available in much of North America. Bottled mate is increasingly available in the United States. Canadian bottlers have introduced a cane sugar-sweetened carbonated variety, remarkably similar to soda-pop, less the fructose, chemically extracted caffeine and preservatives. One brand, Sol Mate, produces 10-ounce glass bottles available at Canadian and U.S. retailers, making use of this clever pun for the sake of marketing..