Yerba Mate or hierba mate or erva mate, in Portuguese (Ilex paraguariensis), or sometimes called simply mate, is a species of holly (family Aquifoliaceae) native to subtropical South America in Northern Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Southern Brazil and Bolivia. It is used as a herbal tea.
It is a shrub or small tree growing to 15 m tall. The leaves are evergreen, 7–11 cm long and 3–5.5 cm broad, with a serrated margin. The flowers are small, greenish-white, with four petals. The fruit is a red berry 4–6 mm diameter.
The word hierba is Spanish for grass or herb; yerba is a variant spelling of it which is quite common in Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico. Mate is from the Quechua mati, meaning "cup". Yerba Mate is therefore literally the "cup herb".
Mate is often misspelled maté in English to distinguish the pronunciation and meaning from the English word mate.
The plant is grown mainly in South America, more specifically in Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay and Southern Brazil (Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná). The Guaraní are reputed to be the first people who cultivated the plant; the first Europeans to do this were Jesuit missionaries, who spread the drinking habit as far as Ecuador.
As with other brewed herbs, yerba mate leaves are dried, chopped, and ground into a powdery mixture. Unlike other brews, however, mate is traditionally sipped from a dried and carefully carved, hollow calabash, through a special metal straw (traditionally silver) called a bombilla. Bombilla usually means "light bulb" in Spanish, but locally it is "little pump" or "straw".
The bombilla acts as both a straw and sieve. The submerged end is flared, with small holes or slots that allow the brewed liquid in, but block the chunky matter that makes up much of the mixture. A modern bombilla design uses a straight tube with holes, or spring sleeve to act as a sieve.
Preparing the Mate
The method of preparing the mate infusion varies considerably from region to region, and it is hotly debated which method yields the finest outcome. However, nearly all methods have some common elements: the gourd is packed with an abundant amount of yerba, and very hot water (typically from 70–80 degrees Celsius [160–180 degrees Fahrenheit] and never boiling) is added.
Arranging the yerba
The most common of these methods involves a careful arrangement of the yerba within the gourd prior to the addition of the hot water. In this method, the gourd is first filled one-half to three-quarters of the way with yerba. After this, any additional herbs may be added for either health or flavor benefits; a practice most common in Paraguay, where people acquire herbs from a local yuyera (herbalist) and use the mate as a base for their herbal infusions. When the gourd is adequately filled, the preparer typically grasps it with their full hand, covering and roughly sealing the opening with their palm. Then the mate is turned upside-down, and shaken vigorously but briefly (and with gradually decreasing force) in this inverted position so as to cause the finest, most powdery particles of the yerba to settle toward the preparer's palm and the top of the mate.
Once the yerba is thus settled, the mate is then carefully brought to a roughly sideways angle, with the opening tilted just slightly upward of the base, and the mate is once again shaken, though only very gently and with an exclusively side-to-side motion. This further settles the yerba inside the gourd so that not only are the finest particles toward the opening, but the yerba is also layered along one side, with the largest stems and other bits creating a partition between the empty space on one side of the gourd and the lopsided pile of yerba on the other.
After the yerba's arrangement along one side of the gourd, the mate is very carefully tilted back onto its base, so as to minimize further disturbance of the yerba within as it is re-oriented to allow consumption. Some avalanche-like settling is normal in doing this, but is not desirable; the angled mound of yerba should remain, with its powdery peak still flat and level with the very top of the gourd, at least in part, while the layer of stems present along its slope will slide downward and accumulate in the formerly-empty space opposite the yerba (though at least a portion should remain in place).
All of this careful and deliberate settling of the yerba serves one primary goal, to ensure that the mate which is later sipped through the bombilla contains as little particulate matter as possible (by ensuring that the finest particles are as distant as possible from the filtering end of the bombilla), creating a smooth-running mate and a pleasant experience for those partaking of it. The larger particles and stems particularly also assist in the filtration which occurs with each draw on the bombilla. Additionally, the sloped arrangement also ensures a proper and consistent concentration and flavor with each filling of the mate, and extends the number of times it may be refilled.
Insertion of the bombilla
Now the mate is ready to receive the bombilla. Many people choose to pour cool water into the mate prior to the addition of the bombilla, while others insist that the bombilla is best inserted into dry yerba. Wetting the yerba by gently pouring cool water into the empty space within the gourd until the water nearly reaches the top, and then allowing it to be absorbed into the yerba before adding the bombilla, allows the preparer to carefully shape and "pack" the yerba's slope with the bombilla's filtering end, which makes the overall form of the yerba within the gourd more resilient and solid. Dry yerba, on the other hand, allows a cleaner and easier insertion of the bombilla, though care must be taken so as not to overly disturb the yerba's arrangement. Such a decision is entirely a personal or cultural preference. The bombilla is inserted with your thumb on the upper end of the bombilla, at an angle roughly perpendicular to the slope of the yerba, so that its filtering end travels into the deepest part of the yerba and comes to rest near or against the opposite wall of the gourd.
Now the yerba may be brewed. If the bombilla was inserted into dry yerba, the mate must first be filled once with cool water as above, then be allowed to absorb it completely (which generally takes no more than two or three minutes). Treating the yerba with cool water before the addition of hot water is essential, as it protects the herb from being scalded and from the chemical breakdown of some of its desirable nutrients. Hot water may then be added by carefully pouring it, as with the cool water before, into the cavity opposite the yerba, until it reaches almost to the top of the gourd when the yerba is fully saturated. Care should be taken to maintain the dryness of the swollen top of the yerba beside the edge of the gourd's opening.
Once the hot water has been added, the mate is ready for drinking, and it may be refilled many times before going "flat" and losing its flavor. When this occurs, the mound of yerba can be pushed from one side of the gourd to the other, allowing water to be added along its opposite side; this revives the mate for additional re-fillings.
Drinking the Mate
Yerba mate is traditionally drunk in a particular social setting, such as family gatherings or with friends. One individual (known in Spanish as the cebador) assumes the task of server. This person typically fills the gourd and drinks the mate completely to ensure that it is free of particulate matter and of good quality. The server subsequently refills the gourd and passes it to the next drinker who likewise drinks it all. The ritual proceeds around the circle in this fashion until the mate becomes lavado ("washed out" or "flat"), typically after the gourd has been filled about ten times or more depending on the yerba used (well-aged yerba mate is typically more potent, and therefore provides a greater number of refills). When one has had their fill of mate, they express as much to the cebador when it is their turn to drink, by simply saying gracias ("thanks") as they receive the mate. In the tradition of mate-drinking, gracias means that this mate accepted will be the last to be drunk, and serves as an acknowledgement of the kindness and kinship offered by the cebador and those with whom one has shared the mate.
It is also normal to drink it in study sessions, role-playing game groups or any over-a-table friend meeting. University students in South America have reported to be unable to study unless they are drinking mate, and furthermore, that studying is sometimes just an excuse for drinking it.
Yerba mate has a pungent taste like a cross between green tea and coffee, with hints of tobacco and oak. Sugar or honey are sometimes added if desired, creating mate dulce, sweet mate (mate without sugar is called mate amargo or bitter mate). Normally the preference for mate dulce and mate amargo is one or the other. Also it is considered bad for the gourd (especially for the natural (squash or wood) ones) to be used for mate dulce so it is normal for households with drinkers of both kinds to have two separate gourds.
Natural gourds are used, traditionally, though wood vessels and gourd-shaped ones, made of ceramic or metal (stainless steel or even silver) are also common. Gourds are commonly decorated with silver, sporting decorative or heraldic designs with floral motifs.
Both the wood vessels and the gourds require a special treatment (called curing) to get a better taste before being used for the first time and to ensure the long life of gourd. Typically, to cure a gourd, the inside is first scraped with the tip of a bombilla to remove loose gourd particles. Mate herb and hot water is added next, and the mixture poured into the gourd. The mixture is left to sit overnight and the water is topped off periodically through the next 24 hours as the gourd absorbs the water. Finally the gourd is scraped out, emptied, and put in sunlight until completely dry.
Variants and trivia
In Uruguay the traditional yerba mate is usually big and has a large hole. In Argentina (especially in the capital, Buenos Aires) the mate is small and has a small hole, and people sometimes add sugar for flavor. In Bolivia and Peru, mate de coca is often sipped instead of ordinary mate.
In Uruguay it is not uncommon to see people walking around the streets toting a mate and a thermos with hot water. There is even a national law that prohibits drinking mate while driving, because it caused many accidents of people getting burned with hot water while driving.
In some places of Argentina, gas stations sponsored by yerba mate producers provide hot water for free to travelers, specifically for the purpose of drinking during the journey.
In Brazil, traditionally prepared yerba mate is known as chimarrão. Nowadays, in Brazil, yerba mate is also toasted and prepared in a similar manner to black tea. You can easily find "tea bags" and prepacked "iced tea" packages and bottles at supermarkets, restaurants and fast food chains. This is also true of Argentina, where people make (or buy bags of) mate cocido (cooked mate), to be served in a cup.
Most Chileans are not mate drinkers. However, the people of its Southern regions, particularly Chiloé and Magallanes, consume large amounts of it as a legacy of the generations of natives who traveled to Argentina to find work and eventually returned.
In some provinces of the Middle Eastern states Syria and Lebanon it is common to drink yerba mate. The mate was imported from Arab emigrants in South America returning to their home-countries.
There is another drink that can be prepared with specially cut dry leaves, very cold water and, optionally, lemon or other fruit juice, called tereré. It is very common in Paraguay.
Chemical composition and properties
Mate contains xanthines, which are alkaloids in the same family as caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine, well-known stimulants also found in coffee and chocolate. Mate also contains the chemical elements Potassium, Magnesium and Manganese.
Yerba mate products are sometimes marketed as "caffeine-free" alternatives to coffee and tea, and said to have fewer negative effects.
This is often based on a claim that the primary active xanthine in mate is "mateine", said to be a stereoisomer of caffeine. However, caffeine has no stereoisomers. "Mateine" is an official synonym of caffeine in the chemical databases.
Researchers at Florida International University in Miami have found that yerba mate does contain caffeine, but some people seem to tolerate a mate drink better than coffee or tea. This is expected since their chemicals other than caffeine are different.
From reports of personal experience with mate, its physiological effects are similar to (yet distinct from) more widespread caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea or guarana drinks. Users of yerba mate report a mental state of wakefulness, focus and alertness reminiscent of most stimulants, but often remark on mate's unique lack of the negative effects typically created by other such compounds, such as anxiety, diarrhea, "jitteriness", and heart palpitations.
Reasons for mate's unique physiological attributes are beginning to emerge in scientific research. Studies of yerba mate, though very limited, have shown preliminary evidence that the mate xanthine cocktail is different from other plants containing caffeine most significantly in its effects on muscle tissue, as opposed to those on the central nervous system, which are similar to those of other natural stimulants. Yerba mate has been shown to have a relaxing effect on smooth muscle tissue, and a stimulating effect on myocardial (heart) tissue.
Yerba mate's negative effects are anecdotally claimed to be of a lesser degree than those of caffeine, though no explanation for this is offered or even credibly postulated, except for its potential as a placebo effect. Many users report that drinking yerba mate does not prevent them from being able to fall asleep, as is often the case with some more common stimulating beverages, while still enhancing their energy and ability to remain awake at will. However, the net amount of caffeine in one preparation of yerba mate is typically quite high, in large part because the repeated filling of the mate with hot water is able to extract the highly-soluble xanthines extremely effectively. It is for this reason that one mate may be shared among several people and yet produce the desired stimulating effect in all of them.
There have been numerous epidemiologic studies on the association between yerba mate-drinking and cancer in humans. There is limited evidence that drinking hot mate may cause esophageal cancer in humans. Some researchers have suggested that this effect is almost entirely a consequence of hot mate's temperature; similar links to cancer have been found for other beverages generally consumed at high temperatures. On the other hand, in-vivo and in-vitro studies are showing yerba mate to exhibit significant cancer-fighting activity. Researchers at the University of Illinois (2005) found yerba mate to be "rich in phenolic constituents" and to "inhibit oral cancer cell proliferation".
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