Updated: Jan 9
Yerba Mate has been called “the next superfood” or” miracle worker” in food reviews and by trend trackers. They’re not wrong, Yerba Mate has a slew of health benefits and is easily consumed but that’s not the only dimension of this drink.
Yerba Mate has been consumed for centuries bySouth American indigenous peoples, the primary consumers were the Guaraní peoples in the centre of the continent. They inhabited areas on the border of modern day Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia & Paraguay. Through inter-tribal contact, Yerba Mate stretched as far south as the Argentinian Pampas & as north as modern Venezuela. The introduction of Spanish colonisers further mechanised & distributed this plant.Yerba Mate has endless stories to tell but right now I’m going to focus on a few traditions that involve Yerba Mate from both the indigenous peoples & the resulting intermingling with the Spanish.
Yerba Mate derived from Llex paraguariensis , a member of the holly family
Its has a caffeine content of ~40mg per 8ml cup, less than coffee
The Mate “gourd” & “bombilla” are the primary equipment used in consuming Yerba Mate (add a thermos if you’re serious & on the go)
1. Myth of how Yerba Mate started
In Guaraní legend, like in many ancient myths, a god longed to be amongst the humans they watched over. In one version of the myth, The Sun told The Moon of all the earthly things it missed out on because the moon only comes out in the darkness of the night. Curious, the moon transformed into a young woman to walk the earth in daylight and see all the it was missing out. Another version of the myth says that The Moon always longed to roam the earth like the jovial humans and one day enlisted the help of The Clouds to secretly roam the earth at night under cloud cover. Both versions culminate with The Moon being attacked by a Jaguar but saved by a Guaraní warrior. As a gift of thanks, The Moon gave the Guaraní people Yerba Mate.
Known as South American Cowboys, Guachos roam the Pampas of Argentina, Chile & Uruguay herding cattle and living with themselves as their sole authority. Surviving as nomadic cowboys in an unrelenting climate takes a toll on the body. However, Guachos have been revered for their vigorous & heartiest. Subsisting on primarily beef & Yerba Mate, it’s said they receive most of their essential vitamins & minerals from drinking copious amounts of Yerba Mate. Known to be vitamin rich & loosely used as a means to suppress the appetite, Yerba Mate is a Guacho’s companion in their lonely life. Yerba Mate made its way into this lifestyle as many of the earlier Guachos were descendants of the Guarani people or mixed race with deep knowledge of indigenous practices. Yerba Mate was also once easily found while roaming these countrysides. Though there are less Guachos today, Yerba Mate traditions live on.
3. Jesuits, Encomienda & Yerba Mate
Initially outlawed by the Spanish then cultivated on Encomiendas, Yerba Mate’s relationship with Spanish colonisers & missionaries wasn’t smooth sailing. The Christian settlers first detested the drink, viewing it as an immoral act of indulgence as indigenous peoples would drink Yerba Mate. Described by the Jesuits as becoming upset or wasting away if they couldn’t get their hands on it. Spanish settelers who took a liking to Yerba Mate were initially described as addicts who would trade everything they owned meet their Yerba Mate fix. This caffeine rich stimulant firmly captivated the Spanish appetite, an appetite that isn’t easily satiated. Described as a vice but equivalent to Chocolate consumption in Europe.
Soon Encomiendas were established to process Yeba Mate, effectively enslaving the local indigenous populations. The system of oppression was so cruel that Jusuit priest Mariano Lorenzanos wrote to King Philip III aking for an end to Yerba Mate production. In 1596, the first ban on Yerba Mate came into effect, labeling it a vice as Spaniards drank the infusion around the clock & made poor decisions in order to obtain more. However, by 1630 the harvest & consumption of Yerba Mate was fully legalized driving exports but decimating the natural crop, leading to plantation style cultivation.
4. Mate Assassins
Traditionally in social settings, a group of people will share a single gourd & bombilla, passed around the group and poured by the Cebador. The Cebador is responsible for pouring the Yerba Mate, refilling the gourd with hot water after each person drinks their fill. The Cebador also usually takes the 1st brew of the Yerba Mate as it’s the most bitter and a sign that they have no intention to harm the group. This wasn’t always the case. Because of the trusting mature of the group sharing the Maté, poisons could occur.
If you know of any other traditions or legends involving Yerba Mate, let me know!