Yerba mate, a brew of tea leaves reminiscent of foliage, packed into a gourd and slurped through a metal straw by the residents of the Cono Sur, continually mystifies and entertains unsuspecting yanquis new to this neck of woods. Mate is more than just a drink- it is a pastime, a daily ritual, and a social tradition. For those that don’t know spanish, the proper pronunciation of mate is “MAH-tay” and can often be found written as maté in english, helping our tongues correctly pronounce yet incorrectly stress the ending vowel.
I will leave the description at that, as just about every english- speaking blogger in Argentina/Uruguay/Paraguay feels compelled to explain the full process in great detail. There is already a wealth of information that I don’t have to write, so go forth and Google!
I am going to write about tereré, or mate frio, instead.
Tereré* is essentially cold-brewed mate and is the popular way of preparing the yerba in Paraguay and the northern regions of Argentina. A jug of cold or iced water is used in place of a steaming kettle or thermos. One may add dried herbs or sweeteners to the water or the leaves for extra flavor and, depending on the region and season, the concoction may be steeped with fruit juice instead of water. Popular fruit choices are lime, orange, lemon or pineapple. I rarely add flavor or sweeteners to any type of tea so I consume my tereré (and mate) straight, though I might try a splash of chilled juice when the humid summer arrives. The beverage is normally served in a dried and hollowed gourd or animal horn.
[*Don’t even dare pronouncing those r’s like in the english word rug. And do not try to roll them like a latino… Make them sound like very soft d’s, with your tongue barely touching the roof of your mouth.]
My first experience with tereré was the result of what I thought was tummy problems. Several days of pseudoephedrine-laden cold pills had my innards in a state of confusion and left me searching for ways to regain intestinal balance. Lots of water, a large bowl of oatmeal, and a thermos of hot mate didn’t do a thing to make me feel better; I was left holding my tender tummy and pacing the path from the desk (aka the dining table) to the bathroom for several hours until Fernando arrived home. After listening to my whining, he recommended I take some mate frio to get things moving.
Though I was not pleased about why I would soon be imbibing, I was excited to try the Paraguayan version of mate since having heard about it several weeks ago. For my first experience, I had pictured myself lounging in a park on a hot summer afternoon, cupping a guampa and merrily sucking the cool liquid into my overheated body. Alas, I would be drinking the tereré for medicinal purposes. It is rumored that mate in all forms is a remedy for a variety of stomach ailments, particularly the blockages that can accompany a diet heavy in meats and refined carbohydrates, as is popular here.
Ahh… The first sip was refreshing and much more earthy tasting than I was expecting. It went down smoothly without the slight mouth-burn I get from the hot version. I refilled my gourd and happily slurped down five or six more rounds without Fernando noticing, until he caught me refilling once again with a goofy smile on my face. I was a bit embarrassed by how much I drank, as surely seven rounds of cold-brewed tea would induce something spectacular, right? Fer’s look of horror made it pretty clear that he was sure I was going to pull a Puyehue and blow all over the place very soon. He didn’t want to take me to the market for dinner groceries because he imagined me sprinting home to use the bathroom in a fit of panic.
I can proudly report that mate frio makes the toilet no more my destiny than a bottle of water does. In fact, I am now drinking cold mate more frequently than hot, as it is so much more pleasant to put a cool metal straw against my lips than a burning hot one. It’s also easier for me to turn on the tap than boil a thermos of water. My laziness knows no limits.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my tereré is getting warm.