The ritual of mate in Argentina: Don't say thank you (unless you're done)

The Perennial Plate

Chef Daniel Klein and camerawoman Mirra Fine of the weekly, online documentary series The Perennial Plate travel the world learning -- and filming -- how people really eat in their home countries. In Argentina they learned about mate from Guayaki's Alex Pryor.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You've been in Argentina. What did you find?

Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine (Photo: The Perennial Plate)
Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine (Photo: The Perennial Plate)

Mirra Fine: We found ourselves in the jungle. This time we were in northern Argentina with a man named Alex Pryor who founded Guayaki, which is a yerba mate company.

Daniel Klein: Yerba mate is a tea that is very popular in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. It's a bitter tea that you drink out of a gourd. You can put sugar in it. You pour in hot water and sip it out of what's called a bombilla, which is a metal straw with a sieve at the end.

LRK: Is it bitter?

DK: I think if you're not used to drinking it, it comes across initially as bitter. It's a little vegetal, but it's appealing in its bitterness.

MF: I didn't find it very bitter. Daniel was surprised that I liked it at all. Before we drank it, he was like, "You're not going to like this." He said that usually it takes a while to get acclimated to it. But I thought it was pretty good.

They said that usually women like to put sugar in it; they don't like to drink it straight.

DK: It was originally grown on the jungle floor, that's where it was discovered. But since industrialization happens to everything, it's now grown in deforestation and huge plots in the sun. But he's trying to bring it back to its original form, which is on the jungle floor. He's planted all of these different original varieties on the jungle floor.

Mate plant
Yerba mate in the jungle (Photo: The Perennial Plate)

LRK: You're walking through the jungle -- what happened?

MF: We got there at night. We went to this hut that was in the middle of the jungle that Alex had built. It had no sides on it, it was completely open. We were sitting around this wood stove.

We were listening to all the crazy frogs and animal sounds in the distance. When you're in the jungle, there's nothing, but at the same time you're surrounded by all these bugs. It's almost like a heartbeat of squeaks and croaks.

We're passing around this gourd because drinking mate is very much a big traditional thing. It's also a cultural thing; it's about community and it's about sharing.

You sit around and the main person is called the cebador. They fill it three-quarters of the way with these dried, chopped leaves. Then they put this straw in, the bombilla, which is a silver, metal straw. At the bottom it's almost squished into like a duckbill. It has holes in it so that only the beverage can come in.

LRK: It's like a built-in strainer?

MF: Exactly. He pours in the water, takes a little drink and then passes it to the next person who takes a sip.

There are all these rules around this ritual. You're supposed to look at the person when you give it to them. There's supposed to be an intention with giving it to them.

You're supposed to have the straw face toward the person you're giving it to. They're not supposed to move the straw at all because they could get it in an incorrect position and it could get all the chunks of yerba.

DK: You can't say thank you. If you say thank you, it means you don't want any more mate.

MF: Which was really hard as Minnesotans because I kept saying thank you, which means it shouldn't be passed to you again.

toasted mate
Toasted yerba mate leaves next to a copper kettle for drinking (Photo: The Perennial Plate)

DK: There are all these traditional techniques that were used before it became part of everyday culture in Argentina. Alex wanted to share with us all these different methods that were used prior to just the way that it's used in the cities.

He takes a receptacle, a bowl or a pot -- he used a pot in this case --  and he takes some coals out of the fire and puts them in the pot. Then he takes the mate leaves and sprinkles them over the coals so they start to smoke and burn a little bit.

Then right away he takes raw sugar and sprinkles that over the coals as well. It starts to caramelize, so you get this smoky, caramel smell in the air. He stirs it around for a minute, and then takes warm water and pours it directly over the coals. You're essentially creating this mate, caramel drink.

You drink it and it's smoky and it's sweet. He said it tastes like the campo -- that's like when people think back to how mate used to be when it was toasted over a fire, that's the flavor.

LRK: Campo means country or the countryside?

DK: Campo means countryside or farm.

Con Sentido (With Meaning) from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.

 LRK: Is Alex's mate available in the U.S.?

MF: It's called Guayaki, and they sell it at local co-ops and probably Whole Foods.

DK: Actually, his company started in the U.S. when he went to college. He would bring his mate gourd to his classroom with his hot water.

MF: Argentinians have it all over the place. You're sitting on a train and someone will have a thermos with their hot water and a little pouch of the yerba, which is the actual mate, the tea, and then their little gourd. Everywhere you go. If you sit next to them, they'll offer it to you or you can ask for it.

Alex was telling us how he was sitting in a courtyard in Mexico and was putting his mate together. He saw this man staring at him. A few minutes later, the man was sitting next to him and said, "Can I have some?"

He does share because that's what it's about -- it's about this sharing. He said it elevates the conversation because you can talk for an hour over this mate.

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