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Foreign Grocery Friday: The Yerba Mate of Argentina

March 30, 2012 at 10:54 AM | by | ()

When we travel, one of our favorite things to do is to pop into a local grocery store and check out the food products and candies we'd never find anywhere else. So we're trying out this new feature, Foreign Grocery Friday, where each week we'll feature some of our (and your) favorite overseas treats. Got a recommendation? Let us know!

Take the teabag out. Throw it away. Travel to Argentina and have some real Yerba Mate. Forget that you ever drank Yerba Mate using a stepped teabag.

While mate is popular all around South America—in Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Peru and Bolivia especially—we're concerning ourselves with mate in Argentina, which is where we recently went crazy for the stuff and where drinking it is a social thing, but even more frequent than having tea in the UK or coffee in San Francisco. You'll see people clutching their gourds everywhere.

Mate is a type of shrub holly, and yerba are its leaves. The tea, a dried loose mix of the shriveled leaves and little sticks, has a very specific preparation that involves its own specific instruments: a guampa/mate (hollowed out drinking gourd) and a bombilla (metal straining straw).

The preparation goes like this: First you add a healthy amount of the mate to the gourd, then any sweeteners you'd like, then add hot water. Do not stir the mate, but put your thumb over the top of the metal straw and insert it into the mate. Remove your thumb and begin sipping from the straw. When you run out, refill the hot water but not the mate, as it can be brewed several times before loosing its strength.

The taste: It's very green and strong and earthy, a totally great substitute for coffee considering it's tasty and contains caffeine. If you're a fan of wheatgrass shots, kombucha or a Starbucks green tea latte with soy, then odds are you'll easily take to mate. We only advise you to go easy on sweeteners until you've figured out exactly how you prefer your mate; we put in too much on a try and it almost ruined mate for us forever.

The price: Boxes of looseleaf mate are inexpensive; 13 Argentine pesos ($3 USD) is an average price in the supermarket.

Where to find it: Look for the gourd. If you're at a lunch spot and you spot someone else drinking one or see the gourds stacked, then try asking for it. It's perfect for breakfast and lunch, but don't rule out other hours of the day for a funky caffeine kick. Additionally, it's such a national symbol of Argentina that gift sets like this one are popular souvenirs, and we spotted the gourds for sale even at the remote Chile-Argentina border high in the Andes mountains.

Gourds for sale

[Photos: Cynthia Drescher for Jaunted]

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