Originally published in Livingspace magazine
Maté, pronounced ‘mah-tay’, is a caffeine-rich infused beverage from southern South America. It is made by steeping the dried stems and leaves of the holly species Ilex paraguariensis, commonly known as the yerba maté plant. Maté’s balance of caffeine, antioxidants and vitamins makes it perfect for anyone looking for an alternative to tea and coffee that packs a healthy punch.
Gift from the past
There are many legends as to how maté became the favoured drink of the Guarani, the indigenous people who still inhabit the lands we now know as Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Chile. But all the tales agree that it was gifted to them by the gods, as a reward for good behaviour. They decided to dub the concoction ‘the drink of the gods’, a name that became even more fitting when they noticed the increased vitality they experienced after drinking it.
The Spanish conquistadors noticed this too, and took the brew back to their modern civilisations. But though it crossed the sea, nowhere was it quite as popular as in its homeland. In fact, years later, the gauchos (cowboys) from Brazil referred to maté as their ‘liquid vegetable’, consuming it with a frequency and relish to rival that of the Guarani. Today, it is as commonplace in these regions as a takeaway cappuccino in Sandton. It’s even the ‘national infusion’ of modern-day Argentina. And now, luckily for us, it has made its way to South Africa.
A cup of goodness
Maté’s burgeoning popularity is thanks to the fact that it combines a caffeine punch with a whole lot of nourishment – so much so that in 1964, the Pasteur Institute said it contained ‘practically all the vitamins necessary to sustain life’.
What most proponents of the drink claim to experience is an increased ability to concentrate and a feeling of physical vitality. And they say you don’t crash after maté the way you do with coffee. Other benefits often listed include more efficient digestion, improved cardiovascular health and assistance in weight loss. There hasn’t been a whole lot of research conducted to substantiate those claims, but what we do know is that maté contains a hefty dose of the following:
1. Polyphenols, which are powerful plant-based antioxidants that help to protect against cancer
2. Vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2, Niacin and B-complex
3. High levels of the minerals manganese, potassium and magnesium, as well as iron, calcium, selenium and phosphorus
4. At least 15 amino acids – the building blocks of your body’s proteins.
Maté is traditionally brewed and served in a hollowed-out calabash gourd and drunk using a special kind of straw, called a bombilla (‘bomb-bee-yah’), which has a filter at the lower end.
To prepare your maté, place the dried leaves and stems into the gourd so it is at least half full. Place your hand over the opening and turn the gourd upside-down, shaking gently so the smallest particles move to the top (so that you don’t suck in powdery maté when you take your first sip). Tilt the gourd sideways so that the maté is piled to one side.
Next, place your bombilla into the empty side of the gourd and add enough cold water to dampen the maté – this will make sure that it doesn’t get scalded later and lose its nutrients. When the cold water has been absorbed, add hot (but not boiling) water to fill the gourd. And try not to stir!
As the drinking of maté has its roots in a social ceremony, a group of friends or family will all drink from the same gourd.
Etiquette dictates that the person who prepared the maté must drink first. This is because the first drink is usually the strongest or the most bitter. They then refill the gourd with hot water and pass it to the next person, who drinks until the gourd is emptied again. It is refilled and makes its way around the circle until the maté loses its flavour. When you’ve had your fill, don’t forget to give thanks to the preparer!