Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Foodie Corner: Mate (Ma-Tay)


Almost every nation or culture has a trademark food or beverage.   Often these are regional specialties, at other times they are national icons.  When it comes to Argentina and Uruguay, there is no doubt that the national beverage is the ubiquitous mate (pronounced ‘ma-tay’). 
Simply, mate is a tea-like drink comprised of loose, crushed leaves from the ‘yerba mate’ plant, mixed with hot water and consumed from a small cup through a ‘bombilla’ -- a metal straw with a filter.  The water cannot be boiling; it must be exactly 85 degrees Celsius.  (There are public hot-water vending machines labelled “85”, where for a few centavos you can fill your thermos.)

There is no ‘buzz’ effect, no chemical high, no hallucinogenic properties. It is a cultural phenomenon, surpassing addiction, drunk by both young and old, and it is everywhere.  At work, at home, in parks, on the beach, on buses; locals are to be found with a thermos in one hand, mate cup in the other, regularly topping up with leaves and water.  We witnessed one man on his bike in downtown Buenos Aires, thermos wedged in the crook of his arm, pouring into his cup and sipping while riding.

Mate thermoses, cups and bombillas come in endless varieties of designs and colours, from plain to ornate to customized, allowing a full range of self-expression.   Mate is often shared, with the pourer offering his/her cup to a friend, who is expected to drink the full cup before handing it back.  (From which I concluded colds and flu must spread very quickly through the country, but was later informed that it is polite to let others know when you are ill and need to stick to your own mate, thank you anyway.)

Always eager to explore culinary highlights, Carolyn and I signed up for “The Argentine Experience”, an evening of immersion and instruction in Argentinian food and drink.  We sampled wines, learned to make popular cocktails, created our own empanadas (a meat- or veggie-filled pastry), and feasted on Argentinian beef.  The evening concluded with a “how-to” session on mate, where we learned the ins and outs of this all-important pillar of Argentinian tradition.

We were cautioned that the first sip is “somewhat bitter”. 

When I stopped coughing and my eyes finished watering, I offered the half-full cup to my wife, eager to have her share in this newfound experience.   With Carolyn subsequently wiping the tears from her cheeks, face stuck in a painful wince, our host suggested that as first-timers it would be permissible to add a little sugar to the mix.   Thanks for coming out.

I believe that something less potent might be more appropriate, such as turpentine or undiluted sulphuric acid.  Apparently, flavoured mates are available, but are strenuously denounced by purists.  These non-lethal, pale substitutes for the real thing are relegated to young children, the socially inept, hapless tourists, or ostracized wimps.

Mate will be added to my list of “must be an acquired taste”; one that I am likely to never, ever acquire.

To see more pictures from the trip, click here:  Trip Photo Album

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