By Zoe Mendelson, 20, reporting from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on the best shared beverage in the Americas
Here in Buenos Aires, they look at you funny if you ask for your coffee to go. They'll giggle at the silly tourist if they see you walking around holding a little paper cup. This seems odd to me, considering their beverage of choice involves carrying a container of loose leaves, a gourd, a metal straw and a giant thermos of hot water.
This is mate: just about the most ubiquitous thing in Argentina.
If you're a North American who wants to try a hot drink with more ritual than anything you get at Starbucks, two things to know—it's pronounced mah-tay, and you can get a whole range of products here.
Yerba mate, the plant from which mate is prepared, is a species of holly. The leaves and parts of the branches are dried and steeped in hot water inside a gourd and sipped from a metal straw that has a filter at the bottom. It has more caffeine than coffee, and more antioxidants than green tea.
But what's really special about it is that mate is for sharing, in a ceremonious, social custom. One person does the serving, pouring the water and then handing it to the person on their right. That person then drinks it to the bottom and hands it back to the server, who fills it for the next person. Everyone shares the same straw and nobody bats an eye about it. Also, if you say "gracias" when the mate is handed to you it means, "no thanks."
Drinking mate is more sensory than drinking coffee or regular tea. You carefully pour the water in at an angle, so as not to wet all of the leaves at once. Then you watch the leaves hydrate and expand. You hear them crackling in the hot water, and you hear the slurping up of air bubbles every time someone finishes a gourd.
Mate has a strong, bitter, very vegetal flavor that takes some getting used to. But don't worry, the Argentines aren't adverse to adding sugar. "Mate dulce, para amarga es la vida," they say, which means, "Sweet mate, for life is bitter."