When I was 17 years old my parents sent me to the South American country of Argentina to spend the summer immersed in a new culture and language. I lived with an Argentine family, went to an Argentine school (below the equator it was winter), and ate Argentine food. This last immersion took me to new heights as I stretched my palate and savored alfajores de dulce de leche (cookie sandwich stuffed with creamy caramel sauce), empanadas (warm, flaky meat pies), and all shapes and colors of handmade Argentine-Italian pastas.
While almost everything I ate created a fantastic party in my mouth, the traditional Argentine drink, yerba mate (pronounced mah-tay), made my mouth pucker and my eyes water. How unfortunate for my immersion into all things Argentine. I wanted so dearly to love this drink, but no matter how my host family made it, I just could not wrap my taste buds around it.
We are all entitled to our own taste preferences, but here’s why this was a most unfortunate aversion. Mate is consumed not just for the caffeine (85 milligrams per 8 ounces) or even to quench thirst. Argentines imbibe this beverage because it is their country’s quintessential social drink.
More Than Just a Drink
Loaded with antioxidants, yerba mate is made from finely chopped, green leaves infused in hot water, which yields a beverage with an earthy, slightly grassy taste. The most traditional way to drink yerba mate is to
- fill a small, dried out gourd 1/3 to 1/2 full of dry mate leaves
- pack the leaves around a bombilla, a metal straw with a perforated base that serves as a filter
- pour hot water over the mate leaves
- take your large sip through the bombilla until all the liquid is gone
- pass the gourd on to the next person
Yes, this is a communal drink! The next person will fill this same gourd with more hot water, typically from a large thermos. The gourd is passed from person to person until all the hot water in the thermos is gone. One helping of packed yerba mate can yield up to 10 servings.
Yerba Mate Yearnings
I wanted so badly to be part of this conveyor belt of mate consumption, the ultimate symbol of hospitality and acceptance. In between servings from the communal gourd, family and friends would chat about life, laugh at funny jokes, and dream big. I could join in in all aspects of this tea ceremony except consumption. Each time I let the earthy elixir pass me by, my shoulders would droop ever so slightly.
Does Absence Make the Taste Grow Fonder?
Fifteen years after my time in Argentina, I returned with my spouse to visit my former host family. I was thrilled to jump back into the love and laughter of my old community and their rich culture. We had only just arrived when I saw the beloved yet burdensome mate gourd and thermos slip out from the cupboard.
The first pour was passed to my husband and me. Memories flooded back at my failed attempts to enjoy this beverage. With several years of palate development under my belt, I was determined to give it another go. I held the gourd nervously in my hand, wrapped my mouth around the hot metal bombilla, and wondered if my tastes had changed. With all eyes on me there was only one way to find out….siiiiip.
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