On a typical weekend day in Buenos Aires, the city’s parks fill with people. Clusters of friends sit for hours in the sun, talking, playing music, kicking around a football and tanning. But no matter what the activity, nearly every group can be seen passing around mate (pronounced “mah-tay”), a traditional South American tea.
The caffeine-packed beverage is always consumed hot. It is one of the most popular drinks in the region, especially in Argentina and Uruguay. It is made from yerba mate: green, finely chopped leaves that infuse the tea water with an earthy and slightly bitter flavour, similar to that of green tea. Some drinkers sprinkle in sugar to cut the taste. As they would with coffee, but that added sweetness is a personal preference that some purists consider an affront.
People of all ages drink mate, at home with family or while spending a relaxed afternoon with friends. For many, mate also is the beverage of choice for staying alert during the workday, as they sip on it at their desks.
Mate preparing, drinking and sharing is an integral part of daily life in South America. So learning the customs behind sampling this local tradition is an easy way for visitors to get a literal taste of Argentinean culture.
How to drink mate
To a visitor accustomed to seeing caffeinated beverages sipped from plastic toss-away cups and steaming mugs, mate looks particularly foreign. It is a beverage for sharing and it is served in a round, uncovered gourd. It is made from a calabaza (squash) rind and often burnished with metal detailing.
The yerba mate is packed around the metal bombilla(straw), which has a perforated base that functions also as a filter.
One helping of packed yerba yields about 10 drinks, so a thermos of hot water is always nearby to refill. Those who are strict about their mate practices say the water should be heated to the point just before boiling.
Since an Argentine rarely prepares mate alone, there is a particular set of social codes to follow when enjoying the shared beverage as part of a mate circle.
One person is the server — usually the person who owns the gourd and also prepares the mate — and he or she fills it for each person. Each participant drinks the full serving before passing it back to the server. All use the same gourd and straw, and “gracias” is only muttered when you have had your fill.
Where to drink mate
Despite its popularity among locals, mate is not served at most of Buenos Aires’ dining establishments. It is more of an everyday, social drink than a beverage to accompany a meal. But a few restaurants and cafes throughout the city do serve mate for visitors who want a sample. Or even for Argentines who are craving it and left their mate gear at home.
Las Cholas (Arce 306; 4899-0094), Las Cabras (Fitz Roy 1795; 5197-5301), Cumaná (Rodríguez Peña 1149; 4813-9207) and La Cholita (Rodríguez Peña 1149; 4815-4406) are all part of a chain of tasty, low-key parrillas (steakhouses), where diners can order mate off the menu.
They also serve tereré, which is the cold and less ubiquitous counterpart to traditional mate. The steaks are juicy and priced right, and other traditional Argentine dishes.
Among them locro, a thick, bean-based stew, is recommended. Mate is also on the menu at La Gauchita, located in one of the nicest areas in town, Palermo Botánico, with shaded, tree-lined streets and a number of embassies nearby.
But, if hunger kicks in while drinking mate, baked goods make a far better pairing with the strong flavour of the tea.
In the Palermo Hollywood neighbourhood, Porota offers delectable passion fruit muffins and cheese scones to accompany the hot tea beverage. Nearby Cusic also serves an appetizing selection of pastries and snacks that pair well.
Service is slow at Mama Racha in Palermo Soho, but with its views of the bustling adjacent plaza, sitting outside with a mate can be a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. For those wandering around in sleek Puerto Madero, mate is available at Xcaret (Alicia Moreau de Justo 164; 4315-6260), which also has outdoor, riverside seating.
For a full Argentinean cultural outing, La Peña del Colorado, is an amicable, multi-purpose establishment that doubles as a restaurant and concert venue that also has mate on hand to sip through the shows or at any time of the day. Raíces cocina casera con historia in Núñez, home to the famed River Plate soccer club and its stadium, also hosts concerts in its restaurant space.
They make their homemade pastas on Sundays and serve mate with medialunas. Those are flaky Argentinean pastries that taste like sweet croissants, throughout the week.
Mate gourds, whether for regular consumption or pure decoration, are characteristic souvenirs from the city. One can purchase mate gourds varying in size and style, including embellishments like metalwork or carving details.
They incorporate iconic Argentine images such as the flag or tango dancers, at any street fair in Buenos Aires. The weekly blocks-long San Telmo Fair on Sundays always has multiple vendors.
As does the Feria Plaza Francia, the outdoor weekend fair adjacent to the Recoleta Cemetery in Plaza Francia.
Originaly published in BBC.com