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Tea Tuesdays: Gift Of The Moon, Bane Of The Spanish — The Story Of Yerba Mate

A gourd of yerba mate. Legend has it that the moon gifted this infusion to the Guaraní people of South America.
A gourd of yerba mate. Legend has it that the moon gifted this infusion to the Guaraní people of South America.

In 1616, Hernando Arias de Saavedra, the governor of the Spanish province that included Buenos Aires, banned the population from drinking a green herbal drink called yerba mate.

The governor had seen the region's indigenous Guaraní people carrying this drink with them everywhere they went. It was a filthy vice, the Spanish had decided. And it was spreading like wildfire among the Spanish colonists — as far away as what is now Bolivia, Chile and Peru.

"All Spaniards, men and women, and all Indians, drink these dusts in hot water," one dismayed Jesuit priest wrote, lamenting, "And when they don't have with what to buy it, they give away their underpants and their blankets ... When they stop drinking it they fade away and say they cannot live."

That passion for mate (unlike the governor) is still very much alive and well today in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and southern Brazil, where it is known as chimarrão (pronounced she-ma-how).

Indeed, in 2013, mate was officially declared a "national infusion" of Argentina, where an estimated 250,000 tons of herb are consumed every year. Paraguay has a National Tereré Day (tereré is a drink made with yerba mate, but it's drunk cold). The brew is now a common sight in health stores and specialized coffee shops in the U.S.

Technically, mate is not a tea, but rather, an infusion. "Tea" refers to a drink made from the leaves of the evergreen Asian shrub camellia sinensis, whereas the leaves in mate come from Ilex paraguariensis, a shrub with small greenish-white flowers that grew especially abundant in Paraguay.

(Left) A<em> bombilla</em>, the metal drinking straw with a strainer at one end that's used to sip yerba mate. (Right) Mate leaves.
Ryan Kellman/Meredith Rizzo / NPR
(Left) A bombilla, the metal drinking straw with a strainer at one end that's used to sip yerba mate. (Right) Mate leaves.

"The Guaraní people put mate in small calabashes and drank it as a cold infusion, through hollow straws," historian Lucía Gálvez recounts in her book De La Tierra Sin Mal Al Paraíso: Jesuitas Y Guaranies. "They also chewed on it to have more energy on their walks, a tradition which has disappeared."

I've heard variations on this Guaraní legend of how mate came to be: The moon had been told by the sun about all the joys of the jungle that she could not see in the darkness of the night — the birds, the leaves, the flowers. She got very curious, and one day came down to earth in the form of a young woman. She went exploring, and was almost attacked by a yaguareté (a jaguar), but a Guarani hunter saved her. The moon was so grateful, she gave the Guarani people the gift of mate.

So how did this ancient drink go from prohibited brew to beloved South American pastime? Thank the Jesuits.

According to Gálvez, the missionaries may have been critical of Ilex paraguariensis, but they also began cultivating it toward the end of the 17th century, believing it was perhaps not only good for health, but also a good substitute for alcoholic drinks.

Turns out, the Jesuits had a green thumb: Mate soon became the most profitable industry on the missions, and it was sold from Buenos Aires to Peru. It even came to be known in certain circles as "the Jesuit tea." In 1747 one Jesuit priest wrote: "it is the herb of Paraguay, which here and in Chile, and in much of Peru, is what chocolate is to Spain, and even more common, for it is used by the rich, the poor and the slaves."

Another Jesuit who loves drinking mate? Pope Francis. "What's that bowl-pipe thing he carries around and frequently takes a hit off?" Gawker wondered aloud a few years ago. "It's a mate cup with a silver straw. And it's how you drink the caffeine-loaded 'national infusion' of Francis' homeland, Argentina."

Pope Francis sips his mate as he arrives for his general audience at St. Peter's Square in December.
Alberto Pizzoli / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis sips his mate as he arrives for his general audience at St. Peter's Square in December.

Mate is woven into the very fabric of the region's culture. In The Voyage Of The Beagle, Charles Darwin writes about the comfort of a warm sip: "When it was dark, we made a fire beneath a little arbor of bamboos, fried our charqui (or dried slips of beef), took our mate, and were quite comfortable."

One of the first tango-like songs to be penned, in 1857, is called "Tomá mate, che" ("Drink mate che), by Spanish musician Santiago Ramos. He sings: "A girl said, when she saw me, this porteño kills me. Drink mate, che, drink mate. Here on the River Plate, we don't do chocolate." (A porteño is a person from Buenos Aires.)

Brazilian poet and musician Jayme Caetano Braun used the drink to describe aging: "Vá chupando despacito/Que é triste matear solito/Quando a velhice nos bate." (Sucking slowly/ how sad to drink mate alone/ when old age hits us.)

There's a whole art to preparing a hot mate. Here's how I was taught. First, you have to get a good container for the brew. Cups made of bone are particularly gorgeous. I love the traditional way of drinking it, in a dried calabash gourd. Otherwise, I go for wooden cups. Plastic or metal cups are no-nos for me — you lose that great aged-wood flavor.

A lot of gourds are passed from generation to generation and have a sentimental value (I have my grandfather's gourd at home). But if you buy a gourd made of wood, calabash or cow bone, you must prep it. I was taught to give it a wash and fill it with wet yerba. Leave the leaves there for a day, then rinse and repeat a few times.

As for the mate itself, I've seen it sold in small packages at trendy health-food chains, but it just won't give you that many servings. Go to a South American specialty store and buy a few pounds for a few bucks. You'll thank me for it.

My yerba mate gourd.
Ryan Kellman/Meredith Rizzo / NPR
My yerba mate gourd.

Now that you have your herb, and you've cured the gourd, you are ready to drink a nice hot mate. Fill the gourd about halfway with the dry tea leaves. Next, cover the gourd with your hand or a piece of paper and shake it just a little, so that the powdered leaves rise to the top and you don't end up drinking them.

There are a lot of different methods to prep mate, but here's what I was taught: Heat water until it is about to break into a boil. Tilt the gourd and pour in the water so that only half of your leaves get wet.

That wet section is where you are going to stick your bombilla, a metal straw with a strainer at one end. Once the bombilla is in, pour more water into that wet little pouch, then start sucking on the metal straw.

I know a lot of purists who look with disdain upon those who add sugar to the drink. But there are so many great ways to prep and flavor mate. I sometimes toast orange and lemon peels, then add them to the gourd. A friend of my father's used to pour hot milk instead of water. I've heard of people pouring alcohol or coffee into their mate. That's a little much, if you ask me, because mate already has plenty of caffeine.

A lot has been said about the health benefits of mate. My grandpa swore by it, and he lived until almost 100. But he also went dancing every weekend, which probably did more to keep him young.

The drink is popularly used to lose weight, a virtue which is debated. One study found that a mix of mate and other herbs administered to overweight patients helped them feel full faster. And while research suggests mate contains plenty of vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, don't go guzzling it by the gallon. Some studies have also found a link between heavy consumption and an increased risk inoral, esophageal and lung cancers — especially in smokers.

"When it comes to teas or herbals that might have medicinal properties, it's not a regulated thing," Katherine Zerasky, a registered dietitian with the Mayo Clinic, tells The Salt. "[Drink] it in moderation, and within the context of a healthy diet."

And don't forget to keep it social. The beauty of mate is that you share it with friends and family: Pour yourself some hot water, drink until the gourd is dry, then pass it along to the next person.

Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.