Food

Uruguay’s addiction: a sacred green substance

Uncountable times I have been stopped at airports all around the world and interrogated by merciless immigration officers who suspect they are in the presence of a vicious and sneaky criminal. So have many of my fellow countryman and woman. We are usually escorted to interrogation rooms, intimidated, obliged to empty our bags and demanded explanations.

The reason is a suspicious green substance we Uruguayans always carry around in our luggage (usually by the kilos), and I’m not talking about cannabis, recently legalized in this country, that’s another story. I’m talking about Yerba Mate. This herb (which does resemble cannabis in its aspect) is sacred and worshipped in this part of the world. It constitutes a strong part of our identity and we just can’t live without it.

Picture: Jackson Carson - Flickr

Picture: Jackson Carson – Flickr

Mate is by far the most typical and consumed beverage in Uruguay. Mate consumption is a firmly established tradition that has its roots deeply embedded in our DNA. Although it is consumed in other parts of the region (mainly Argentina, Paraguay and south Brazil) and also, bizarrely, in other random places like Syria, in Uruguay it reaches a whole new level. We Uruguayans are completely and obsessively Mate dependent.

Mate, an infusion like beverage, which was originally drunken by the Guarani (the pre-Colombian indigenous populations that originally inhabited these lands), basically consists of filling a calabash gourd (known as mate) with dried and grinded Ilex Paraguariensis leaves (know as yerba mate). So we have Mate the beverage, Mate the cup and Yerba Mate the substance. Confusing, I know. Then we stick a silver straw in the equation (called bombilla), we pour very hot water, start sucking, and the ritual begins. Maybe it’s easier to watch how it’s done:

Mate is an extension of the arms of Uruguayans. You can see people of all sorts, ages and characteristics carrying it around under their arms. Businessman and construction workers; high school adolescents and retired grandparents; in parks and shopping centres; it’s all the same. Mate is an inseparable part of our daily lives, an essential component of social interactions and also a warm gesture to greet a friend or a relative. It has many healthy properties and is also a powerful stimulant, due to high quantities of caffeine. This makes it a perfect companion for work and study.

Picture by Mike Goldstein

Picture by Mike Goldstein – Flickr

Picture: Diana Carbes - Flickr

Picture: Diana Carbes – Flickr

If you ever visit Uruguay you will certainly be surprised by the amount and variety of Mate drinkers you will encounter around its cities. Some visitors can’t stand its bitterness, but if you manage to victoriously overcome this initial rejection and reach the point of enjoying it, you will rapidly become a Mate addict like all of us and contribute to spread the word of this wonderful tradition all over the world.

  1. Thanks for the article Joaquín. Although I must say (and forgive me for this), I haven’t been able to get used to mate’s strong taste yet! It’s definitely a challenge.

  2. Mate i got some maté questions here:
    * The mate cups, are they expensive? And curious to know if there are different gradations of cup styles, like a certain type used by the construction workers, a type for business men,…etc?
    * do you do Mate cocktails (add a bit of Rum for example)?
    My mind is going crazy on the amount of possibilities here 🙂

    • Dear Marc, responding your questions:
      Indeed the possibilities are mind blowing!
      1. They are not expensive and you can get them in any imaginable size and sort, there are even ones that are not made of calabash (you can fin wooden, rubber, etc). There is no gradation acording to different stereotypes, it’s just a matter of taste, and you can find both businessman and construction workers not only driniking in similar Mates, but also sharing one.
      No cocktails are made with Mate, so you have a whole fertile land for entrepreneurship here in Uruguay!

      • I tried anyway what i think to be a variation of Mate in Argentina, the Terere, was quite sweet and refreshing cold drink. Is it common for you as well?

        • Hey Stefano! It’s not common here at all! It’s more of a crime really! You risk getting your hands cut off if you drink sweat and cold Mate here! 😉

          • LOL Joaquin, I was actually afraid could have been some sort of blasphemy to Mate lovers but I’ve been offered and I have to say was nice ;D….will not mention that then when I will visit Uruguay! XD

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Our Correspondent
Cult Uruguay correspondent
Joaquín - Montevideo

Compulsive traveler, manufacturer of melodies, mystery hunter, passionate adventurer, lonely wanderer, novice altitude jumper, sincere composer, student of the transcendental, saloon entertainer, unlimited dreamer, occasional vandal, rummager of the unknown. Born and raised in Montevideo, capital of the small and remote, yet ...

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About Uruguay
About this place

Continent: South America
Capital: Montevideo
Population: 3,477,000
Area: 176,220 km2
Currency: Peso
Languages: Spanish

Time in Montevideo
7:37 am

Weather in Montevideo
  11°c

Distance from you
8,500km