Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Herb.

Ahhhhhhh, mate(pronounced MAH-tay), the bitter, buzz-giving traditional tea of the southern parts of South America.  Long before I ever came to Argentina, I was turned onto mate and its magical powers by a friend and I've never looked back.  Most Americans have no clue what the stuff is and have always looked at me quite strangely seeing me drink what looks like dirty soup through what looks like a pipe.  Be ignorant no longer friends and family!  I will open your minds!  

Officially referred to as Yerba Mate, mate is all consuming in the southern parts of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, and of course Argentina.  Mate is consumed at all hours of the day, sometimes alone, but often times shared with friends and family.  Mate is a significant part of the daily culture and is consumed in every possible place imaginable; from park benches, to street markets, while driving, soccer players sip it on the sidelines and school children have even been seen toting their gourds and hugging thermoses on field trips.  

 Mate is consumed by putting the loose herb/tea in a small "cup" which is usually made of wood or is a hollowed out gourd, elaborated with decorations, or in this case, simply covered with a metal outer casing.  This "cup" is actually the mate, the tea is the yerba(herb).  After pouring hot(but not boiling!)water over the yerba, it is sipped through a filter straw called a bombilla.  The bombilla obviously allows the passage of only the brewed tea and not the chunks of leaves and stems that remain in the gourd.  Yerba mate is a tea that can be brewed time and time again, continuously pumping out flavor and the famous "spaced-out" mate buzz that keeps this society fueled.  Thus, accompanied by a thermos filled with hot water to refill the gourd over and over again. 
Mates and bombillas are for sale on nearly every street corner, every souvenir shop, every market.  All shapes, sizes, and decorations imaginable.  
Wow, that's quite the selection of mates.  And at the black market exchange rate of 10/1 Argentine peso to US dollar, that is also quite the bargain!  Mate and bombilla for all!

Though I find supermarkets to be disgusting places and avoid shopping at them in favor of small local and farmers markets, I could not resist snapping this photo of the yerba mate section of a super market in Buenos Aires.  It is larger than the coffee section, and likely higher quality than the crap coffee that Argentines drink.
A common sight in the streets, and I don't mean just trash disposed of in the streets.  Upon close inspection, one can see that there is used yerba dumped right on top of the trash that someone already left in the street.  Hey, it's natural, right?  I really see this everywhere in the city, piles of used yerba disposed of on sidewalks.  It beats dog shit any day.
Here we see a young Argentine doing what they do best, sip mate on the sidewalk.  Job?  Who needs a job?  
Remember what I said about using hot, but not boiling water?  Well that is much more of a concern among mate drinkers than you can imagine.  The South Americans are so nutso about not burning the yerba that there are even counter top water heaters with a "mate" setting.  Minimum, mate, maximum, a guarantee you will not burn your herb(I couldn't resist the pun).  Boiling water not only burns the mouth and esophagus of the drinker when it is consumed, but it is too hot for the yerba and actually damages the multiple health properties that the yerba contains.  Yerba mate is quite a healthful drink, and though it contains a compound very similar to caffeine, it also contains many vitamins and minerals.  Mate is an alkaline pH, which makes it much healthier and easier to consume in place of acidic coffee as well.  Any one that has ever tried mate has also likely experienced the "high" similar to smoking pot that lasts for maybe twenty or thirty minutes.  This buzz usually doesn't last if one continues to drink mate everyday, but is always fun for first timers.  Then they're hooked, always looking for a high that was as good as the first time. . .  
They love the herb so much, they get high and paint murals in the street.  When I say it's everywhere, I literally mean it.  Put that in your gourd and sip it!

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