Used for centuries, Yerba Mate is an ancient herb and the key ingredient to an iconic beverage for many South American countries, and is especially beloved in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Believed to be a gift from the Gods to the Guarani people, the thin tree is found in great numbers throughout the South American forests.
The youngest, greenest leaves are gathered, dried and then poured into a “mate” – a ceramic bowl or dried, hollowed squash – and then hot water (never boiling) is poured over it and it’s left to infuse. The drink is taken with a “bombilla”, a metal straw or reed that features a kind of strainer at the bottom, so the herbal infusion never enters the mouth. Once prepared, the infusion is drunk throughout the day; just by adding hot water one can continue to drink without adding any more leaves.
Known for its anti-oxidant properties, Yerba Mate also increases metabolism and helps the body burn calories faster. That being said, its high caffeine quotient makes it unsuitable for too much consumption. There is a ritual of sharing that is a part of the Yerba Mate experience. If an Argentine invites you to share in a cup, it means he is showing you hospitality, friendship and trust. Just like in the tea rituals of Japan, there are different meanings to the various gestures. For example, pouring a small amount of water, very slowly, means that there is a strong interpersonal connection because it makes both the infusion and the ritual last longer. The server is usually called cebador, or “celebrator”, and is the only person that can pour the water, pass the mate from person to person and maintain the freshness of the leaves.
Beyond the traditional recipe, there are many variants to this ancient herb: Yerba mate cocido is an infusion much like traditional tea, which foresees the use of either a tea bag or a French press, and creates a clear beverage that is immediately ready for consumption. Yerba mate gringo style refers to the way the beverage is enjoyed in North America: the leaves are poured into a mug, cold water is added and then they are left to soak for a few minutes, with the hot water being added afterwards. It’s consumed with a bombilla, and water is added until the aroma is gone. Yerba mate terere is the refreshing, summertime version: start by preparing a cold, sweet lemonade with agave or maple syrup and then pour it into the mate – in this case it’s better to use the ceramic kind – and after letting the infusion sit for a few minutes, you can drink it with the bombilla. Yerba mate espresso is a green concentrate used to flavor the “matte lattes”, a kind of cappuccino, which can be poured over crushed ice to obtain almost a green granite.
To prepare: sprinkle two teaspoons over herbs in a bowl and then add a tiny bit of water in order to create a sticky paste. Use this paste to fill the espresso filter and then prepare the drink as if you were making a coffee. Like green tea leaves, Yerba Mate leaves are used to color and flavor desserts and sweets.