Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mate gives you wings

Pronounced "mah-tay," it is a tea-like drink that is typical here in Argentina and southern South America (is that how you say that?!). It's a symbol of tradition and community, and is often the center of a circle of friends, passing one gourd around to share among all.

I first encountered mate in Spain at the eclectic tea place that my friends and I frequented. Veronica had studied abroad in Buenos Aires and jumped at the chance to have a mate when she found it on their menu. I'd never heard of it (and to be honest, it didn't look that appetizing), so I passed on the mate in favor of my favorite Pakistani flavor. (Pakistani - name of the flavor, not the origin of the tea).

So, when I arrived in Argentina, I knew what to expect. In fact, I tried to seek out this mysterious herbal concoction pretty early on, but it kept eluding me. I would see people with their mate gourd and thermos in the street, but it's really hard to find a public place like a cafe or restaurant where it can be ordered. I even passed a cafe one time and saw it on the menu displayed in the window, but the cafe was closed. And then I never found it again.

Finally, in Plaza Serrano, one of the more touristy but fun areas with restaurants, bars, and open-air shopping, I found it! A cafe that would serve me mate - the authentic way, not "mate cocido" which comes in a tea bag. No, this unique Argentine tradition is more than a cup of tea. It requires a lot of special equipment and a meticulous hand in preparation. Here's a glimpse of my first mate experience:

The green tin holds the yerba, which is akin to tea leaves. Sometimes yerba mate is flavored with lemon or orange fragrance, but it's good a la natural as well. The blue tea kettle, of course, holds the water, which should be hot, but never have actually reached boiling point. The silver cup in the middle is the mate. Traditionally, mates are made of squash gourds, but this is a more modern set up with all the metallic. Now you can find mates in almost any material you want...aluminum, ceramic, wood, leather, the classic gourd, or even horse's hoof (which is touristy. I don't know if the ones I've seen are real horse's hooves, but I hope not.) The straw is called a bombilla and is usually made of silver. The submerged end is not an open hole, but rather a bulb with small holes or a coil so that the yerba doesn't come through when you drink. Genial! (Genius!)

To give you an idea of the variety of mates there are available, here's a picture from just one of the many stands at an outside market selling them.
And this is the one I finally chose to be mine! I found it last weekend on our trip to the big market in El Tigre, one of the last suburban areas before you get out of greater BsAs.
It's a wooden one and has a unique design in comparison to the millions I've seen around souvenir shops and street vendors. After some research and a trip to the grocery store to pick out some yerba, I made my first mate today and sat sipping it while working on my project from home. It's magical! (Not magical like Shenan's grog, but magical all the same). It's got a lot of caffeine for one, but doesn't make you sick after a while like coffee does. You can keep refilling the gourd with your thermos of hot water for hours upon hours without breaking into a sweat or feeling like the acid's eating your insides (which happens to me after a fourth cup o' java). Che, I wish I had known about this stuff during college finals!

Anywho, I was more productive from my desk at home than I have been on any other day off! Usually, I get tired or claustrophobic sitting in my room for too long, but today I was comfortable crouching over my evaluation notes and best-practice resources. It must be the mate!

The trade-off is that it's 1:22am and I'm still wide awake with no sign of fatigue to help me get a good night's sleep before work tomorrow. Now, I know the secret to the Argentine's unusual circadian rhythm, which seems to entail very little shut-eye. HA! I may just have to pack up my roommate's thermos and my new mate and fly through another day of evaluation design tomorrow! No sleep, no worries. Hakuna Matata.


Melissa said...

Oh Jessi! I love how unique the "tea cups" are! I'm so jealous! I've definitely heard of mate, so I'm glad you're sampling it and loving it there...makes me want to hunt for some and try it too

Tracy said...

I love your mate! That's something you'll treasure for years and everytime you see it, it will bring back memories of your trip.

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