Yerba mate (pronounced mah-teh) seems to be a fast-growing trend around the country. As a healthier alternative to coffee, the South American herbal infusion has made it to grocery stores shelves and coffee shops across Denver; you can find it in loose leaf, teabag or brewed form everywhere from Buenos Aires Pizzeria to your nearby Whole Foods.
Yerba mate is made from the dried and crushed leaves of a holly plant indigenous to southern South America. Over the past few years, yerba mate has gained popularity as a healthy stimulant containing caffeine, antioxidants, amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
All over Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Chile, men, women and even children enjoy mate, engaging in conversation beside a big cup and a thermos bottle of hot water. Unlike drinking coffee, drinking mate is largely a social experience, with two or more people sharing a single cup. In South America, that big cup is often a hollow calabash gourd called a mate; you drink through a metal straw called a bombilla. You can use a regular teacup, too, but you will definitely need the bombilla.
Here are a few other tips to brew and drink mate like an Argentinean. 1) A gourd being used for the first time should be cured or the first few drinks might be bitter than usual. Fill the gourd with boiling water almost to the top and let it stand for a while. Then gently scrape the membrane out of the gourd under running water and let it dry for a day or two.
Once it's ready, pour the yerba inside the mate until is three-fourths full. Cover the mouth of the gourd, tilt it and shake it. The mate should lie at a 45 degree angle, with the powdery bits at the top.
2) Insert the bombilla into the gourd, in the empty space next to the pile of yerba. Pour hot water into the empty space. Remember to use hot water -- boiling water will make the mate bitter. Allow the mate to rest for a few seconds.
3) Newcomers to mate tend to jiggle the bombilla. Resist this temptation, as you will probably end up clogging the bombilla. Drink the entire mate when it's handed to you; don't take a small sip and pass it back.
If you are new to yerba, don't get discouraged. Mate can be bitter at the beginning; it's an acquired taste.
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Assuming you are the host, you refill the mate with water as needed to pass the gourd to your friends. For the less social, more practical-minded, mate can also be prepared in a standard automatic coffee maker. Just put the mate where you would normally put the coffee grounds.