Gastronomy: Mate

Mate is a tea infusion made from the leaves of the coca plant as well as other plants. Slightly bitter in taste, it’s drunk throughout many South American countries including Chile, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. The culture of mate, which differs from region to region, is steeped in tradition. In the high Andean cultures, what used to be the Incan empire, it’s tied closely to religion and often used in ceremonies thanking the earth for its fruitfulness.

Coca leaves have long been considered a sacred aspect of the Andean culture. It is only in this past century that the chemical configuration was changed to process this plant into cocaine. Since then, the rest of the world has seen Coca as the raw material for the drug and not as the medicinal plant used for thousands of years. Coca has been used for centuries at every stage of the Andean people’s lives, and still is today. Before giving birth, a woman drinks and chews Coca to hasten the labor and ease the pain. When a child is born, relatives celebrate by chewing the Coca leaf together. When a young man wants to marry a girl, he offers Coca to her father. And when somebody dies, Mate de Coca is drunk at the wake and a small pile of leaves is placed in the coffin before burial. From ancient times, these rituals were considered sacred, and as such, the Coca leaf continues to have a great significance in the culture of the Andean people.

As with other brewed herbs, yerba mate leaves are dried, chopped, and ground into a powdery mixture called yerba. It is then stuffed in a gourd-like cup. These also vary widely depending on region – many in the Amazon will be made from bamboo, in northern Chile and Peru copper or another metal, while cedar and other woods are often used in the Patagonia. It is nearly always drunk with a bombilla or straw that has a filter on the bottom to filter out the yerba. Bombillas are also very ceremonious with families often passing them on from generation to generation.

Besides its ceremonial value, Mate de Coca is known to have a variety of medicinal qualities including alleviating the negative effects of altitude. And you’re in luck; mate has recently struck a chord in North America and can often be found in larger supermarkets as well as Latin grocers, so grab a bag and try some!