How To Drink Yerba Mate, Paraguayan Tea
Drink of the Gods
Yerba mate(jerba ma te) is a unique tea like beverage from South America. It is especially popular in Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Yerba was first drunk and cultivated by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay and Argentina. It is known as “The Drink of the Gods” and has numerous health benefits, including mental clarity, cleansing the blood, increased stamina, and possible anti-carcinogenic properties. I lived in Paraguay for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer and you can’t go anywhere in Paraguay, without seeing people drinking Yerba mate. It’s not just a drink, but an inseparable part of the culture and daily life. I never met a volunteer who wasn’t addicted to it. Even after many years, I still enjoy this special drink.
The Equipo (equipment)
As in the picture, this is what you need to drink it:
1. Guampa This is the traditional drinking vessel for Yerba. In Paraguay, the most common type is a hollowed out cow horn. It usually has a small chain added to make it easier to hold. Guampas you buy in the shops are almost always decorated on the front, often a touristy design or the logo for a local soccer team. In the markets, I remember seeing a horn style guampa set completely made of silver costing several hundred dollars, which was beautiful to look at, but I can’t imagine anyone ever using. Alternately, guampas are carved of wood, especially Palo Santo, pictured here, a wonderfully aromatic wood. I love this wood and have many pieces, but don’t usually drink yerba with it because it tends to swell and crack. Wooden guampas encased in aluminum are popular, too. You also often see drinking gourds or cuia, but this style is more popular in Argentina, where it is almost always drunk with hot water. Actually, though any cup can be used and even in Paraguay, my neighbors often just used a small glass. In Japan, where I live now, I just use a ceramic cup.
2. Bombilla (bombiya) This is essential. It is a special metal straw with a strainer with holes at one end. It allows you to drink the tea without sucking up the leaves. The better ones are made of sterling silver. They come in all shapes and sizes and are often decorated with fancy looking, faceted balls with faux jewels near the top.
3. Large pitcher or thermos filled with water. Paraguayans often add herbs to the water. Paraguay is blessed with an abundance of natural remedial herbs that grow everywhere. They’re known as yuyos(jujoz) or remedios or in Guarani, Poha Nana. My neighbors would just go out back and pick some kind of grass or root. They are washed and pounded in a mortar and pestle usually made of Palo Santo, and added to the pitcher. If there’s no mortar handy, just grab the nearest hammer and whack on a hard surface. There are herbs for every possible ailment but are also added for taste. Mint is commonly used and it’s not uncommon to throw a whole lemon or lime into the water. I remember at the Peace Corps office, everyday the yuyos lady would come visit, a little old lady carrying a basket full of various herbs for sale. The yuyos would turn the water green or even brown. But my absolute favorite is lemongrass which smells wonderful and gives the yerba a great taste.
4. Yerba Mate The taste is difficult to describe. Some compare it to green tea, which I love and drink daily, but it’s not really the same. It has a pungent odor and an herbal, almost grassy taste. I’ve heard people say it’s like drinking tree bark. It can be quite bitter at first but becomes milder as you drink. My Japanese wife affectionately calls it that “stinky tea”, but I really don’t think it stinks. It is an acquired taste and I have to admit, the first time I tried it, I thought it was a little bit strange. The plant is actually a member of the holly family. It has a fairly high caffeine content, around 2%, which is still lower than coffee and contains other stimulants such as theophylline, and theobromine. The net amount of caffeine you get however, is probably higher than coffee because you drink many infusions. It gives you a very nice caffeine buzz. It’s true about the mental clarity and helps me think. It’s said to be one of the healthiest of the natural stimulants and have fewer side effects. That’s not to say however, there are none. It can make you a little jittery if you drink too much. It's a diuretic and makes you pee like a racehorse. It does suppress your appetite at the time, but I find myself ravenous later on. Also, after drinking a lot, I sometimes have a kind of empty feeling and a little “blue” melancholy after the caffeine high.
How to Drink
For Paraguayans, equally important to the taste or health benefits is the social aspect of drinking yerba. It’s a communal drink shared in a group. This is how it works; Sit in a circle with your friends. One person is the designated “server”. Fill the guampa about 1/3 or so full with yerba leaves and insert the bombilla. Fill the guampa with water and let sit a minute or so to soak. The server then drinks to the bottom, refills and hands it to the next person, who drinks and hands it back. The server refills and hands to the next person in line and continues around the circle. Yes that’s right, everyone shares the same straw. Some people debate whether it goes clockwise or counter-clockwise, but I don’t think it matters. There’s a little technique to drinking it, especially if the yerba is finely ground. You can’t just suck on it like a regular straw, it’ll get stuck, you have to work at it a bit and take many little sips to get it flowing. It’s quite agreeable and makes for a happy time and good conversation. If the session goes long, someone else can take over as server. If the yerba gets weak, you can dump out the old leaves and “recharge” with fresh yerba. In Guarani, one turn is called a “ha”. “Che ha” (she as in shepherd) means “my turn” and “Nde ha” means “your turn”. When your done and don’t want any more, you can say “gracias”. I attended Peace Corps meetings with fifty or more people and two guampas going in different directions. You see people drinking it at almost any social interaction in Paraguay.
Hot or Cold?
Yerba can be drunk with either hot water, known simply as mate, or with cold water, known as terere. Mate is especially good in the morning and sometimes with sugar added called “mate dulce”. Personally, I’ve always preferred terere. I remember hearing a story about the origins of terere. It was during the Chaco War in the 1930’s between Paraguay and Bolivia. Of course, the Paraguayan soldiers brought yerba with them to the front lines, but they couldn’t build fires to boil water or it would give away their location to the enemy. So they were forced to drink it with cold water and its popularity caught on. I think this story is highly suspect though, as I’m sure the Guarani Indians sometimes drank it with cold water. Paraguay can be an ungodly hot country and there’s nothing like cold terere to quench a thirst on a hot summer day. My neighbors had an interesting way to make ice. They didn’t use ice trays, but instead filled long, cylindrical plastic bags that were about a foot long and a couple of inches wide with water. They tied the ends like a balloon and put them in the freezer. When you wanted ice for your terere, they would take these big thick, ice sticks and break them in the middle, dump them in the water, and throw away the plastic. In Argentina, where mate in a gourd is preferred, they kind of snobbishly look down on terere and perhaps also the simple Paraguayan “country folk” who drink it. But terere is the national drink of Paraguay and I don’t drink it any other way.
The International Drink
In Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, my favorite place to hang out and drink terere was the Plaza de los Heroes in the heart of downtown. It’s an oasis of calm in the busy sea of the city. You can rent the equipo there for a small fee complete with our choice of yuyos. Hanging out with my fellow volunteers sipping terere, it all had a rather bohemian feel to it. It’s a great place to people watch and you can get a shoe shine while you’re there. Also, right next to the plaza is a great open air market where you can find hand made Indian crafts and a large variety of guampas and bombillas.
In recent years, yerba mate has increased in popularity in America and become kind of trendy, where it is marketed as a weight loss aid and hippie feel good drink in easier to use tea bags. I think my neighbors in Paraguay would find all of that rather funny. If you really want to lose weight, move to a developing country for a few years and work in the fields, the pounds will just fall off, take my word on it. There have been some American companies importing yerba and others cultivating it in the states, unfortunately, at a much higher cost. The same one kilo bag of yerba that cost me about 50 cents in Paraguay, might cost upwards of seven dollars in the states. But, the best yerba comes from Paraguay. Popular brands include, Campasino, La Rubia, and Pajarito. But my favorite brand was Aromatica. It was a local brand around the city of Caaguazu, where I lived. It was really finely ground and quite strong.
If you never have, I strongly encourage you to try yerba mate, and not with tea bags, but the traditional way with a guampa and bombilla. And don’t forget, the best way to enjoy it is by sharing it in a circle of friends. Then, you can taste the real secret of “the Drink of the Gods”.