Social Drinking in Argentina (yes, that’s caffeine)

Food & Drink
August 20, 2010 7:00 pm

The first time I felt like a porteño (Buenos Aires native) happened while on a family trip to Bariloche, after I had been living in Buenos Aires for nearly four months. The tour guide and van driver were passing mate and offered it to me. I took the cup, emptied it and handed it back, and they proceeded to fill it again and pass it along.

My mother nearly had a heart attack.

Sharing straws isn’t a tradition in the U.S., but in Argentina — you have to get over it. Mate (mah-tay) is a heavily caffeinated, appetite-suppressing tea that Argentines drink even more frequently than Americans drink coffee. The ritual is this: The host brings out the cup, the straw, the tin that holds a supply of broken mate leaves and a thermos filled with hot water. The host fills the cup roughly three-quarters of the way with mate (more for a bitter, stronger flavor) and then fills it to the brim with boiling hot water that always scorches the amateurs. Then he inserts the metal straw, which has a filter on the end to keep the leaves out of the consumer’s mouth. He or she passes the cup to the person beside him, who drinks until it is empty, and then passes it back to the host, who refills the cup and continues to pass it around the circle, refilling between people.


It's my turn to drink in our post-work day mate circle in my host mom's apartment in Buenos Aires


Naturally, the process takes a while. That’s the idea! The Argentine lifestyle is similar to the European lifestyle in that both have a vibrant cafe culture. Talking and drinking (but rarely getting drunk and never getting crunk) is part of the daily routine. In the office, breaks for mate happen every hour and last 15 minutes. At home, a mate circle forms after work to wind down from the day before dinner, and another forms after dinner to help the meal settle. You bring it on trips, to the park and even to school, where your professor might whip out a cup to send around the 30-person classroom.

But how could an entire country love the same beverage? It must taste like candy! The simple answer is no. It does not taste like candy. Nor have I met a single person who grew up in Argentina and does not like mate. If you don’t like it, you put two tablespoons of sugar in the tea before you put in the water. Voila, like sugar in coffee, it takes away the bitter flavor (and tastes slightly more like candy). Because the tea leaves aren’t changed between refills, the first few people get more bitter-tasting cups than the others. Those who hate the bitter taste can drink last.


My host mom, María Eugenia (Maru for short) next to her thermos and her favorite brand of mate, Taragui


Give it a try at home! My favorite brand is Taragui (above). You can find many offerings in large cities where South American products are sold. In Chicago, try La Única in Rogers Park. The cups are traditionally made from a special gourd, but now many less expensive brands are made of wood and metal. You can mail order cups and their straws as well for a hefty price (of course they’re usually the expensive gourd kind) or you could wait until Karina goes next month and beg her for a shipment!

Tara for TKGO

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