If you have read anything at all about Uruguay, the word mate (pronounced “maté”) has most probably shown up in your research. For those of you who don’t know, Yerba mate, as it is formally known, is a type of plant that in this part of the world is used to make a tea by steeping its leaves and twigs in hot water. A bit strange looking the first time you see it, it is drank out of a gourd (which comes in many different designs) with a metal straw called a “bombilla.” Drinking mate is a big part of Argentine culture and there is a whole etiquette to sharing it, but I must say I had no idea just how much more obsessed the Uruguayans are about it.
Last weekend while visiting Uruguay, I went to a Sunday market in Montevideo and found myself astonished by just how omnipresent this drink is. Much more fascinating than the vendors or their goods were all the people I passed drinking mate. Grandmothers, parents with strollers, young people, and a surprising number of men all walking the market with this ubiquitous drink in hand. I noticed how they all carried it the exact same way – thermos of hot water under one arm with that same arm holding the mate cup. The mate cups seemed a lot bigger than the ones I had seen people carrying in Buenos Aires and I wondered why, all filled to the brim with what to me looks like green grassy goop. I began to wonder how it was they shopped in a market holding all that stuff, how they didn’t spill when mate cups don’t have lids, or how they ran for a bus if need be. I guess it’s the kind of leisurely Sunday afternoon ritual that won’t involve rushing anywhere. As a New Yorker I find this cultural norm hard to imagine – not having a to-do list to pack into your Sunday?
Living in Buenos Aires, I get the impression that mate is most popular among groups of women – whether it be girls who get together to sip mate and gossip, or old ladies who make it their weekly outing to gather for tea and brag about their grandchildren. It also seems more like something people drink at home. But in Uruguay, everyone seemed to not be able to leave home without it, and I saw many groups of men walking together sharing mate. I wondered if they had all talked earlier that day and decided who would bring the mate and all of it paraphernalia, or if they agreed on who would carry it throughout the day.
I can’t believe how widely popular a drink it is when it’s such an acquired taste (bitter and grassy) and a hassle to consume (items needed: container of the lose tea, sugar, and hot water, plus the process of assembling the ingredients). The Argentines and Uruguayans are meticulous about the methods of their mate preparation the way the Italians are about boiling water for pasta noodles. Every little detail matters, and everyone has a different opinion of how it should be done.
How can people drink so much of one thing that’s not water and how could that even be healthy? I recently saw an ad in a magazine of a pregnant women holding a mate cup. Given the tea contains caffeine I just know people back in the U.S. would probably be outraged at this publicity. But here it’s part of every day life and a staple of the culture.
I’m starting to think that the most profitable companies in Uruguay and Argentina have got to be the maté producers. It’s probably also one of the most secure businesses, in a country with very little industry, as it doesn’t look like mate drinking is going out of style anytime soon. When I headed to Playa Pocitos in Montevideo later that day, I shouldn’t have been surprised but was when I found people sipping mate in the sweltering heat and all the “agua caliente” vendors lining the beach. The thought of drinking hot tea on a hot beach day was just unfathomable to me.
While I am embarrassed to say that I have not yet acquired the taste (but am working on it), this leisurely tradition that pervades the culture of these neighboring countries continues to fascinate me.