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Chá Mate

December 13, 2009

“Ecstasy is a glass of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth.”

-Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

Tea seems to have a solid place in the foundation of almost every culture, from a symbol of wealth and aristocracy to a communal ritual. Here in Brazil,  the most popular tea is called chá mate, a toasted version of the Yerba Mate plant.

The word is properly spelled “mate” (pronounced MA-tay) in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, though some English sources prefer “maté.” The accent on the final letter is a hypercorrection intended to indicate that the word is different from the common English word “mate,” meaning a partner. The multicultural Yerba Mate Association of the Americas states that it is always improper to accent the second syllable, since doing so confuses the word with the unrelated Spanish word meaning “I killed.”  Hmm, I’d kill for a mate right now! 🙂

Erva Mate / Yerba Mate plant

Erva Mate / Yerba Mate plant

Mate is brewed from the dried leaves and small stems of the perennial tree Ilex paraguarensis (Yerba Mate in Spanish; erva mate in Portuguese), which is a type of sub-tropical Holly tree. The name “Mate” derives from the quichua word “matí” that names the gourd (Lagenaria vulgaris) that is traditionally used to drink the infusion. In the wild, the plant needs about 25 years to develop completely, reaching in that case a height of up to 15 meters. It flowers between the months of October and December, and the fruit resembles a pepper berry. It’s a sustainable harvest which in turn supports rainforest preservation and the conservation and protection of endangered species

Once the leaves are picked, they are quickly dried to avoid oxidation or fermentation. Drying them at high temperatures by subjecting them to an open fire for 30 seconds imparts a smoky flavor, while removing most of the moisture ( the leaves contain 60% moisture). The next step is to tumble them in a heated, rotating drum. This step is repeated until the leaves contain only minute traces of moisture. Although this step only requires two days, the next step can take up to a year. The leaves are separated from the woody stems and berries, packed into sacks and stored for nine to twelve months to ripen and develop their characteristic aroma. The leaves are then ground and packed for shipping.

Mate is also called “Drink of the Gods.” According to legend, about 1,000 years ago, a god handed the Guarani Indians the plant with instructions for brewing the leaves into tea. Since then,  mate has been an indispensable part of daily life for millions of South Americans.

Brazilian toasted chá mate has less of a bitter flavor than the Argentinian green Yerba Mate and more of a spicy fragrance. When shaken it becomes creamy (since the formed foam gets well mixed and lasts for some time), known as mate batido. It is more popular in the coastal cities of Brazil, as opposed to the far southern states where it is consumed in the traditional way (green, drunk with a silver straw from a shared gourd), and called “chimarrão”

Here in Sao Paulo, there is a chain of little cafes called Rei do Mate (The King of Mate) in almost every neighborhood. Rei do Mate specializes in the cold toasted mate, chimarrão style. Their mate menu includes juices and fruits that you can add to your mate – my favorite is a mate batido with açaí and guaraná. The açaí pulp is frozen, so it comes out almost like a thick, purple-brown foamy tea milkshake. The caffeine in the mate along with the guaranine in the guaraná also serves as a really nice pick-me-up during the day.

The origin of the Mate drinking tradition survives today in small South American villages, primarily in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and southern Brazil. It’s customary for groups of friends to sip Mate through a filter straw called a bombilla from a single, hollowed-out gourd. The host places two teaspoons of leaf into the gourd and fills it with hot water. When cooled, he or she will drink the entire contents of the gourd and fill again with more water, passing it to the others at the table to sip. The first steep is the most bitter; the host takes this as a courtesy. The gourd is filled each time emptied until the Mate leaf looses its flavor (for step-by-step mate instructions, visit this site).There are many legends of the effects this ceremony produces. Sharing a gourd strengthens friendship, unifies the collective spirit, strengthens the body and is considered by some to be a powerful stimulant and aphrodisiac.

Mate gourds and Bombilla straws
Mate gourds and Bombilla straws

Mate and Health

It is used in popular medicine and employed in commercial herbal preparations as a stimulant to the central nervous system, a diuretic, an anti-rheumatic,  aperient (laxative), astringent, purgative, sudorific (sweat inducing), and febrifuge (fever reducing). Mate contains numerous vitamins and minerals. The native Guarani  use it to boost immunity, cleanse and detoxify the blood, tone the nervous system, restore youthful hair color, retard aging, combat fatigue, stimulate the mind, control the appetite, reduce the effects of debilitating disease, reduce stress, and eliminate insomnia.

Despite all of the positive attributes Mate apparently has, I came across this article while doing research. The author claims that the antioxidants in yerba mate are not the “good” kind of antioxidants – he believes that yerba mate contains more carcinogens than antioxidants, making it a potential cause for lung cancer. I’m not sure what to think – everything can cause cancer nowadays. I don’t think that mate in moderation is going to kill you, though.

If you unexpectedly find chá mate on a shelf of a Brazilian grocery store somewhere in the United States, buy it. Brew it until the tea is very dark, then chill it in the refrigerator. Drink it sweetened with a little fresh lime juice, or put a cup in the blender with some frozen fruit pulp, and then comment and let us know how amazing it was 🙂

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    February 26, 2010 9:12 pm

    I tried some Yerba Mate tea years ago, but didn’t add anything to sweeten it. It was horrible. If I’m not mistaken, there is still some in the cupboard above the stove at the house. Maybe when we’re back in April, I’ll try it with a little honey or something….

    • March 15, 2010 12:23 am

      okay mom – if you’ve had a box of tea bags open for over two years, it’s NOT GOING TO TASTE GOOD, no matter how much you sweeten it… I’m going to email Krystle and tell her to throw that out before you commit any more food atrocities. I’ll bring you some fresh stuff from the source, okay? =)

  2. Calvin permalink
    February 27, 2010 1:43 am

    Interesting article. On a side note, is stevia popular down there?

    • Alex permalink
      March 16, 2010 1:45 am

      Stevia is surprisingly not very popular here. It is sold in most places but for some reason it never became widely popular. I was told that the reason for it is because Stevia in it’s original form has a particular taste that resembles licorice to some people, which makes it not appealing to use as a sweetener since it affects the taste of whatever it is you are trying to sweeten.
      I did read that for centuries the Guaraní tribes of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil have used stevia to sweeten their yerba mate drinks.

  3. March 14, 2010 8:06 pm

    OK. So, i had done some research on yerba mate not long ago too! I was recently employed at a coffee shop, so I was starting to get interested in different teas. Yerba Mate is definitely the most interesting tea they had. I loved it over ice and with milk. I also read that if you drink the tea hot, that’s when you are going to have more of the effects of lung cancer… I can’t really source it now though haha. Great article!!!

    • March 15, 2010 12:27 am

      Thanks! I read that too – I think it was on a medical debate forum. I like it better cold anyway.
      No one really puts regular milk in their teas here (it’s all UHT Tetrapak box milk, not so delicious) but a lot of people blend it (the Brazilian mate, not the green mate) with sweetened condensed milk and ice to make a smoothie… definitely good.

      • March 16, 2010 8:45 pm

        mmmmmm…. haha

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