At first sight, yerba mate (pronounced DZER-ba MAH-teh) is an innocuous plant. A relative of the common holly, it grows widely in the steamy forests of northeastern Argentina. Place its leaves in an ornamental gourd, however, infuse in hot water and throw in a complex social ritual, and the bitter-tasting plant takes on almost mythical qualities.
Popularized by Argentina's gauchos, the hard-living cowboys and work hands of the fertile pampas, the consumption of mate has whipped through all sections of society, breaking through the barriers of class and race. The drink is central to the Argentine identity; more, it has become a national obsession.
"I couldn't live without mate," an Argentine friend gravely told me when I quizzed him on the habit. "For us, mate is like oxygen."
Since I moved to Buenos Aires six years ago, the practice had intrigued me. Many Argentines cannot bear to be separated from the paraphernalia of mate production, and happily carry a decorated gourd, metal straw and hot-water flask everywhere, often in large leather satchels, despite the inconvenience. Travelers can stock up with near-boiling water at bus stations, or buy disposable plastic flasks for long-distance trips.
My first day in the city, I watched a bus driver fighting to control his 6-ton 10-wheeler without spilling a drop from a cup of mate held precariously in one hand. Strolling downtown, I noticed businessmen in suits sipping pensively at the liquid in a momentary break from the office. Resting in a leafy park, I fell into conversation with a homeless woman who chattered away happily, mate gourd in hand. I could see little that united the country's social extremes save for an undiluted enthusiasm for mate.
Even expat Argentines remain hooked. During the Cuban revolution, Ernesto "Che" Guevara took time out from fighting Batista's forces several times a day for a mate break.
But it is not easy for an outsider to join the true circle of mate drinkers. To be handed the mate gourd is a sign of acceptance within a group, a symbol of bonding and togetherness that Argentines use to barricade themselves against an ever more hostile world. I was a month in the country before the chance came to sample the experience.
According to legend, a shaman brought the yerba plant to the Guaraní Indians of Paraguay and northern Argentina, who drank an infusion of its leaves to cure fever and restore lost energy. European settlers soon took to the beverage after arriving in the continent in the early 1500s. Writing back to Europe, an Austrian Jesuit, Martin Dobrizhoffer, recorded that mate "provokes a gentle perspiration, improves the appetite, speedily counteracts the languor arising from the burning climate, and assuages both hunger and thirst."
These days, some drinkers choose to flavor their mate with cinnamon, honey or mint. Strong regional differences also exist -- mate is drunk throughout Uruguay and Paraguay and also in parts of Chile and Brazil -- but Argentines regard themselves as the standard bearers of the habit. They look disdainfully on their neighbours' preferences: Brazilians, some say, even add milk.
Mate use is so common in Argentina that it figures in a popular chat-up line -- yerba no hay? -- used by the country's youth. The line refers to a story in which two lovers are discussing how to spend an evening together. "We're bored," says one. "Shall we drink mate or make love?" Suggestively, the other murmurs, Yerba no hay... ("There is no mate...") I tried the line on a waitress in downtown Buenos Aires. She blushed and fled giggling to the rear of the restaurant.
At last, two friends offered to explain the unwritten rules of the mate ritual. Lupe, an Argentine artist, took up a mate gourd roughly the size and shape of a goose egg and made from a seasoned squash skin. Others are carved from wood or even fashioned from fine metals; the most ornate are embossed with silver filigree. Filling the gourd with desiccated yerba leaves, sieved first to remove both twigs and dust, she inserted the bombilla, a metal straw with a perforated bulb at the base, and poured in hot water, just shy of boiling.
As the server, or cebador, Lupe took the first sip. "The cebador is under great pressure at this point," interjected Nitu, her friend. "If you make a bad mate, people won't come to see you again. If you do it well, they'll compliment you on your technique."
Lupe handed me the gourd. I placed the straw delicately between my teeth and took a gentle sip. I tasted nothing. "Suck harder," she urged, "you're supposed to hear the slurp."
I took a long pull on the straw, slurping with gusto, and drained the mate in seconds. It was hot, strong and bitter, and it tasted ... well, it tasted very much like tea.
But the taste, I discovered, was only part of the experience. As Lupe presided over a complex process of passing and re-filling the gourd, I realized that what mattered was the ritual. Mate preparation is elaborate, time-consuming and troublesome. But that's the idea. By demanding concentration, it forces drinkers to forget their troubles, for a few minutes at least, and to focus on savoring the perfect drink. That, I finally understood, is the point.