photo by juanpol on Flickr
Question: What did Tim Ferriss say was the world’s greatest beverage? Do you think you’re already drinking it?
I’ll give you a hint: if you’re from the Rio de Plata region of South America, chances are you’ve been drinking it since you were a child, and your family’s been drinking it for generations.
If you’re a North American, it’s possible (but still not likely) that you have recently picked it up because places like Whole Foods decided they should sell it for really high prices as the new “secret” beverage.
I have no idea about the rest of you. ;^)
Have you guessed it yet?
I’m talking about yerba mate.
Enjoyed by millions of South Americans for hundreds – maybe thousands – of years, yerba mate (pronounced yair-ba MAH-tay) can be all of refreshing, healing, soothing, and warming. Traditionally “taken” in lose-leaf form, you can buy it bottled, canned, and in tea bags these days.
(Side peeve: I’ve seen people write it “yerba maté”, and I don’t understand why – it’s not yerba mahTAY. Don’t do that.)
What is this magical herb?
As a really quick primer, yerba mate is a tea leaf grown primarily in South America. Most places get theirs from Paraguay (tierra bendita) or Brazil. Argentina also produces a lot of brands of yerba. It’s related to the holly plant, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it with our (American) holly bushes.
I’m not sure if the native Guaraní people knew the health benefits of yerba mate when they started cultivating and drinking it, but it turns out there are quite a bit. Paraguayans in the countryside believe it helps you live longer and keeps you fit (I kind of think it’s their hard work ethic personally). Superstition aside, science has revealed some of its benefits.
Yerba mate is an antioxidant on par (or better than, depending on who you ask) with green tea. It’s got a form of caffeine that helps yerba serve as an energy booster. Several compounds that have been studied for their anti-inflammatory properties have been isolated from yerba mate leaves. If you listen to Robb Wolf at all, he’s all about anti-inflammatory properties. It’s one of the reasons we eat slow-carb that Tim Ferriss never told us about.
For more information, a quick Google search on “yerba mate health benefits” will find you more info than you can read in a day.
How to enjoy your yerba mate
There’s a right way and a lesser way to enjoy it. I’m going to tell you the right way. If you choose to go the easy (and less interesting route, may I add), I won’t think any less of you. But I really want you to try it my way!
“Taking” yerba mate is a very social event. You do it with friends, and you almost always share the same “cup” (guampa) and “straw” (bombilla). You sit, you drink, you chat, you laugh, you enjoy. When I drink mate, I’m reminded of the awesome times I had in Paraguay and it makes me feel the warm fuzzies.
The traditional way to drink is to fill the guampa up about 3/4 of the way with the looseleaf tea. Often you’ll find the tea mixed with some mint leaves, maybe some anise, or perhaps some orange or lemon peel. The one I’m drinking as I type is “normal” blend that my wife added some anise seeds and orange peel to.
You slip the bombilla into the guampa, covering it with the leaves. I like to tilt the leaves so there’s an incline from the bottom to the top. The idea there is that you leave some of the leaves dry so when your tea starts losing its flavor, you add some more dry to kick things back up.
Yerba mate is brewed on demand. That is to say you pour as much water into your guampa as you will drink in that turn, usually just about a mouthful. Don’t let it sit; it’ll get bitter really quickly, at least at first. When you take your sip, you pour one for your friend and pass the guampa over. This goes on, a new brew for each person in the group, in a circle until the water’s gone or until no one wants any more.
Variations on the theme
The way I’ve described it is the typical Paraguayan style. If it’s cold out (anything below 70°F), you drink it with hot water. If it’s hot out, there’s absolutely nothing more refreshing than an ice-cold “tereré” (cold mate).
When I’ve had mate with Brazilians, they have a much bigger gourd and you usually fill it up once per round, and each person takes a sip, as opposed to drinking everything in the guampa like I described.
Paraguayans also add certain crushed plants or roots into their water as herbal remedies for things. Argentinians almost always had hot mate, even when it was hot out, and almost always with sugar in it. When I did have cold mate in Argentina, it was usually with a sugar-free juice mix in the water (typically a citrus fruit).
If you’re Uruguayan and have a different custom, I’d love to hear it!
If you haven’t guessed, I generally drink it the Paraguayan way. I’ve got a set that includes a thermos (two actually – one for hot water and a bigger one for cold), beautifully decorated with stained leather, a carved guampa and a silver bombilla.
Are you ready to try it yourself?
My favorite place online to get it is Amazon. If you can’t find a latin market that carries it, this is where I’d suggest going. You can find some in higher-end grocery stores, but it’s overpriced and not as tasty as the South American brands (although the manufacturer you’ll find has told me they buy their yerba from Paraguay, which makes me happy).
Go ahead – give it a shot, and drop us a comment to let us know what you think!