Thursday, March 4, 2010

Mate - the plant, not the buddy

In southern parts of South America (specifically Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and the southern states of Brazil, particularly Rio Grande do Sul) there is a strong tradition of drinking infusions of the plant mate known in Spanish as yerba mate and in Portuguese as erva-mate. (The proper English pronunciation of mate is not ma-TEH, incidentally. It is MA-teh with the accent on the first syllable.) The plant is a species of holly (ilex paraguarienses) and is native to those regions listed above. The leaves and twigs of this plant are used to create a number of different teas, which vary regionally, culturally and linguistically. I'll discuss the various drinks created from mate in future posts. These drinks are often significant parts of the culture, culinary and social, of the regions where they are popular.

Mate was first cultivated by the Guarani Indians who used the dried leaves and twigs of ilex paraguarienses to infuse teas. The habit of drinking mate was spread throughout southern South America first by Jesuit missionaries, and later by the cowboys known as gauchos.

Mate contains caffeine, varying from 0.7% to 1.7% by dry weight. This compares to tea leaves (0.3%-0.9%) or coffee (up to 3.2%). It also has elements such as potassium, manganese and magnesium, and has been shown to have anti-cholesterol and anti-oxidant properties. Conversely, there is some indication that mate has a limited connection to some specific cancers, particularly oral cancer. It's not clear, however, whether it is the chemical composition of mate that is carcinogenic, or whether it is the effect of drinking hot liquids (of any type). Some laboratory studies with mice seem to indicate that imbibing mate has the effect of lessening the tendency to obesity associated with high-fat diets.

In the regions where it is drunk, mate is as culturally significant as is black tea is in Scotland, as coffee is in Italy, or as wine is in France. It is not just a beverage, it's a social and cultural unifier and identifier that cross national and linguistic boundaries to create the "culture of mate."


  1. I understand that mate is drunk traditionally sweetened with stevia.Have you seen this? ( I think the ony brand ofyerba mate to sweeten yerba mate with stevia in the US is Wisdom of Ancients...)

  2. Hi - Thanks for the comment. I wasn't aware of this, but after reading your note, I did some checking online, and it appears that in fact the Guarani Indians of Paraguay have traditionally sweetened erva-mate with stevia. Since both plants are native to Paraguay it makes sense. I'm going to look for some here in in Brazil, and if I find some, I'll post the results here. Cheers,

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