NOT a food blog
“They drink this foul drink called mate in Argentina!” my friend cautioned me before I left for Buenos Aires.
I had read about mate in my travel guidebooks, and I was curious to try it. Mate (pronounced: maa-tay) is an infusion made by steeping mate leaves in hot water in a hollowed out gourd. The person then sips the drink through a metal straw called a bombilla (which has a sieve-like contraption at the bottom end to prevent bits of the leaves from getting sucked up).
It wasn’t the drink that fascinated me, but the communal ritual behind it. According to my guidebook, drinking mate in Argentina is a social activity with its own set of revered rules. The host prepares the infusion by pouring hot, but not boiling, water into the gourd which is already filled with mate leaves, and then proceeds to drink it up. Once finished, the host refills the gourd with hot water and passes it to the next person in the group. When that person drinks up all the liquid, the person hands the gourd back to the host, and the process continues with the third person. This stops only when a person says “gracias” signifying that he has had enough.
In Argentina, it is not uncommon to see people walking around with mate cups in their hands, and a flask hanging on their shoulder. Throughout our travel in the vast country, we saw families and groups of friends congregating in parks to drink mate. It was wholesome and heartwarming and reminded me of the old days when we’d have picnics at the beach in Penang, huddled over tiffin carriers filled with nasi lemak and sambal ikan bilis cooked by mum earlier in the day, as bits of fried peanuts spilled into the white sand.
“When a person offers you mate, you take it, because it signifies an offer of friendship.”
With only two weeks in the country, and because of our inability to communicate in Spanish, I knew that the chances of building lasting friendships in Argentina was slim, and with it, the opportunity to drink mate faded.
It was at a restaurant where I first tried mate. I was offered coffee, tea or mate. I grinned happily and chose mate. It came in a teabag in a cup of hot water. It didn’t look anything like the pictures. I drank it anyway, expecting a life altering experience, a moment that I would remember for eternity, if you will. I blinked. It tasted like green tea. Was that it? I felt cheated.
We were in a bus one day with a bunch of twenty-something Argentinians (and a Swedish) when one of them, a petite girl with long glossy brown hair, hopped over to where we were seated and introduced herself. ”I’m Giuliana,” she said. Little did she know that those two words would be my redemption.
“Would you like to drink mate?” she asked.
“Would I like to drink mate? Would I?? Would I?!?!” I screamed hysterically within. My long wait was over.
“Yes, please,” I said aloud, with typical gentle Asian politeness. She didn’t sense my desperation.
She brought over a cup brimming with a thick sludge of tea and water. As I sucked on the straw, the full flavour of the mate hit me. It was bitter, but there was also a strong grassy flavour. I loved it. I smiled and handed over the cup to Giuliana. We drank mate for the remaining part of our journey with our new friends and shared stories about our travels, Malaysia, our food, our people, our Twin Towers.
I brought home a couple of kilograms of mate leaves together with my very own mate gourd and bombilla with the intention of carrying on this ritual of social interaction. Nowadays, I drink it often with friends. There is no fixed time. After dinner. After a dip in the pool. Before lunch. While singing along to Spanish songs till the wee hours of the morning. And we share stories of our lives.
A friend once remarked that if you open yourself up to the possibility that even the vagrant on the street is able to surprise you with tales of his life’s journey, your own life will be richly enhanced. I believe it to be true. And these mate days, these mate nights, they’re fuel for the camaraderie we share as our lives subtly weave into each other’s to create new memories.
Voy a extrañar tomar mates con vos.
Food, for me, is a means to an end and not an end in itself.
Food, for me, represents the love of family, the fellowship of friends, and the community and communality it brings.