I first heard of Mate traveling in Guatemala on my semester abroad from college. I didn’t try it but I did remember it and when I saw it again, and had the opportunity again, chose not to try it again. I figured that since I was going to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile I should wait to try it in one of those countries.
Mate itself is basically a type of herbal tea (sort of looks like oregano or crushed tea leaves) that is very popular down here. Rather than filling a coffee mug with water and dropping in a small filter bag with tea leaves inside, with Mate the cup itself is special. No ordinary mug will do. The mate cup (actually just called a Mate) is actually a hollowed out gourd. Since the inside is an organic material (the outside is often decorated) that soaks up the flavors of your Mate overtime so the gourd collects more flavor. Sort of like a caste iron skillet.
To drink mate you also need a special metal straw enclosed on the bottom with a strainer. The entire mate (gourd) is filled up with the yerba mate, what we in the north would call the tea leaf. Since there is no filter bag, the straw has to do the filtering.
To drink, you fill the gourd with hot water (often kept in a thermos), a little bit of sugar and sip it down, adding more water only when you want to drink it. This however does take some practice as drinking hot water through a straw is not exactly the best of ideas…and that’s forgetting the fact that this is a metal straw. Whatever you do, don’t jiggle the straw…metal doesn’t exactly make the best filter and that can make it so some leaves come on down your throat.
Mate is a social beverage and often the mate gourd is shared among friends. One person finished the “tea”, fills it with more water and passes the gourd to another person. Like an herbal tea, mate has a bitter taste and often people add a little bit of sugar to the mixture to soften the flavor. Mate is often referred to as a stimulant, and its use is similar to that of coca leaves in northern andean countries. If you can find it in the US I highly recommend trying it!