12.05.2008

South American study drugs

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the need to eliminate coffee from my diet due to health concerns. In the meanwhile, I have had a lot of fun trying alternatives to coffee, some of which were suggested to me by the readers of this blog.

Yerba mate (Argentine pronunciation: shair-bah mah-tey) has emerged as my number one substitute for coffee, at least while I am at home studying on Friday afternoons. The first time you drink yerba mate it feels a bit like engaging in a exotic and intricate ritual from a foreign land, which indeed it is. But living in Argentina, where mate is drunk daily, took away a bit of the strangeness of the drink, so that now drinking mate at home feels more like nostalgia than fetishism.

Last year we bought a mate gourd, at a Brazilian supermarket no less, and I have found some good sources of yerba at McNulty's Tea & Coffee in the West Village. Brewing mate is a tricky business, and it has been five years since I was in Argentina, so I resorted to asking an Argentine classmate of my husband to explain how it's done.

In brief:
  1. Fill the mate gourd about a third full, or half-way, with yerba.
  2. Arrange your mate bombilla (metal drinking straw -- see the pilfered image to your left), poaking it down into the yerba.
  3. Saturate the yerba with cold water, just a little bit. This is done to prepare the yerba so that the hot water doesn't "burn" (quemar) it when it is first poured. Add a teaspoon or two of sugar to the top.
  4. Boil a pot of water. Once the cold water has soaked into the yerba, add a slow stream of hot water to the yerba. Only moisten the yerba, do not pour past the top of the yerba, as the point is to brew it very thickly and strongly. Pouring on more water may make the yerba lose its flavor much more quickly than it should.
  5. Let it brew for a few minutes, then drink your brewed potion through the bombilla.
  6. The yerba can (and should) be brewed again, as you only get about 1/2 cup of liquid per brewing. Often, Argentines put the rest of the the hot water into a thermos at this point, so that it remains hot for future brews; you may add sugar directly to the thermos water or continue to put it on top of the yerba as you pour hot water over it.
  7. Brew yerba a second time, a third time, a fourth.
  8. Now, the rule: if you're drinking with another person, one of you should drink all of the brewed drink the first time, then brew it again and pass the mate to the other person to have the second serving, and then so on and so forth, alternating between people. That's what makes mate such a social drink.
Drinking mate alone also has its charms. I find that the whole ritual of preparing it gives me just enough of a distraction while I am writing my papers to actually be useful; I am the kind of person that works best when there is something else to attend to at the same time. Also, mate is well-known for its energizing effects; like coffee is to caffeine, so mate is to mateine, a chemical substance that some hold to be among the most potent and healthy antioxidants out there. When I lived in Argentina, I was often told that in the old days, the Argentine cowboys survived and thrived on a diet of cow meat and yerba mate alone -- apparently, the mate provided so many vitamins and minerals that the cowboys didn't die of scurvy or develop goiter. More recent studies suggest that yerba mate may protect against DNA damage while also lowering cholesterol, acting a diuretic, and improving cardiovascular health. These are great things, but what I love most about mate is the memories that it brings back of studying with classmates in Argentina over a gourd of yerba mate, nibbling on sweet crackers as the afternoon passed us by.

2 comments:

ClpX said...

My skinny boyfriend grew up on a Mennonite colony in Paraguay, where he picked up the yerba mate habit. (Since replaced with coffee ;))

He and some friends were sharing the tea in a park one day, and they were investigated by police officers! I suppose a bunch of people laughing and passing around a gourd with a decorated straw looked quite suspicious. :) Study drugs indeed!

Keep your blog excellent, I'm still reading.

Charlynn said...

My husband LOVES yerba mate. He worked with a guy from Argentina one summer and quickly became a fan. The quality of yerba mate is extremely lacking where we live, so he doesn't indulge much anymore. If we can find some of the "good stuff," either online or while out of town, I know he'll go nuts. :)