If you like coffee, herbal tea, and all things bitter, mate (pronounced mah-tay) may be your next greatest find. Like many teas, mate is served with hot water, although rather than having a tea bag, water is added directly to the yerba (directly translating to herbs) within the mate. To then drink the mate without taking in the yerba, you use a bombilla – a straw with a filter at its base.
Mate is certainly not for beginners in the field of bitterness, however. Before coming to Argentina, I had no taste for any of the above mentioned drinks and my first experience with mate, mildly put, caused me to cringe from its strength. As an integral cultural tradition, I have had mate almost every day in a variety of settings, allowing me to grow accustomed and even appreciate its distinct flavor.
Normally, mate is a social experience in which the server fills and drinks the first mate, then refills it and passes it to the next person, after which they pass it back to the server, they refill it, pass it to the next person and so on. As possibly the most universal tradition of Argentina, there is almost no setting in which you would not drink mate, explaining the widespread presence of hot water dispensers. In a home setting, mate is a common drink to share with family or guests, and with the use of a termo (thermos), mate is also shared among coworkers and bosses in a work setting, students and professors in a university setting, or individually almost anywhere.
The atmosphere of intimacy and sharing demonstrated in the tradition of mate is a motif within the Argentine culture. The tradition of greeting all persons in a given space with a kiss upon arrival and before departure, including your first encounter with a person, is another key expression of the friendly and relationship-focused Argentine society. Undeniably distinct from the U.S. tendency to individualize and personalize, such communal practices require some adjusting but are nonetheless some of my favorite parts of the Argentine culture.