Technically, this isn’t a vending machine in the sense that it will spit out a nice hot stream of Argentina’s national beverage. Rather, it’s a machine that provides hot water for mate, the pick-me-up that’s as much a national obsession as it is sign of friendship and comeraderie in Argentina and elsewhere in the region.
Mate (pronounced ma-tay) is serious business in Argentina; die-hards don’t leave home without their gourd into which the finely chopped yerba mate leaves are stuffed; the bombilla which serves as straw and filter; and a thermos for regular refills. On the road, thermoses are fill with machines like this one.
It’s bitter and earthy taste –reminiscent of green tea— comes from yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis), a plant in the holly family that grows primarily in northern Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil. The leaves are dried and chopped, mixed with twigs and stuffed into a gourd-like cup. Add hot water and enjoy. But be sure it’s not too hot.
Even when prepared properly, it’s an acquired taste to the uninitiated. Those who taste a batch made with boiling water will probably never try it again. Consider yourself warned.
When shared among a group of friends, it’s somewhat of a ritual with rules that should be observed. The brewer gives the gourd to one person, who returns it after taking a few sips. It’s refilled by the brewer and then given to another. One never says thanks until they’ve really had enough and it’s always consumed from the same straw. Don’t even think about whipping out your own.
Many other forms are becoming increasingly common – carbonated versions, infusions prepared in tea bags, mint and herb-flavored—but are largely considered as bastardizations by true aficionados.
While it’s largely identified with Argentina and Argentines, who consume about five kilograms per capital per year, they’ve got nothing on Uruguayans who drink twice as much annually. It’s also quite popular in Brazil, where it’s known as chimarrão, and in Bolivia as well. In the latter, I suggest you stick with coca tea, aka mate de coca. Because it’s better. And because you can.
And for the record, today’s pic du jour, the 376th straight, was snapped on 13 March 2013 in Bariloche, Argentina.