Mate Manners: How to Make Friends in Argentina

Mate Manners: How to Make Friends in Argentina

Mate is to Argentina as hamburgers are to the U.S. Alongside the potent Fernet con Coca cocktail, it’s the most recognizably Argentinian tradition, and the country’s pride and joy. Enjoy an increasingly popular version—easy-to-use, single serving tea bags—from your Buenos Aires box.

The first time I ever drank mate (pronounced “MAH-tay”), the bitter-tasting tea that Argentinians are so famous for, I committed an irreversible faux pas: I didn’t finish the entire cup before handing it back to the person who offered it to me. When I found out what I had done, I was mortified. Mate is one of the greatest Argentinian traditions; travelling to Argentina without tasting the famous infusion is like going to Italy without eating pasta or to Paris without having a croissant.

More than just an artifact of Argentinian culture, mate seems to be the key to making real friends in Argentina—if you’re offered a cup of mate, you’ve mate it into the inner circle. While many drink a few cups in the morning as Americans would coffee ( mateina, its chemical stimulant, has a similar energizing effect as caffeine), the tea is most commonly enjoyed withother people after the siesta alongside cookies, cake, toast, and homemade jams. The brewer prepares cup after cup of the infusion until everyone has had enough.

Mate Manners

© Joseph Dandurand

After that initial teatime blunder, I straightened out my mate manners. From then on, I learned to remember the order in which the cup was passed from person to person. I knew to expect the brewer to drink the first cup. I held back any “thank you’s” until I didn’t want any more. While the etiquette is complex, the preparation of the tea is even more complicated because it varies depending on who describes it.

Every Argentinian swears by their own method of mate preparation, including curing the cup, steeping the tea, and using specific brands of yerba. Those who use the traditional calabasa(gourd), for example, might let the cup sit overnight filled with water and yerba. Others start by coating the inside with butter. When it comes time to preparing the tea, some add a small amount of cold water to the yerba before infusing it in hot water to remove some of the bitterness, while others add sugar to the final preparation to reach the same result. Some brands of yerba contain more palo (small branches from the mate plant), and therefore more dust, while others are made with just the leaves. No matter the preparation, any lay tourist will leave the country even more perplexed about the tradition than when they arrived.

One thing’s for sure: the mate tradition is something very special. More than just tea, it’s about friendship and the people it’s shared with.

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