At El Chaparral Market, a Latin American grocery in Arlington, a colorful display of seven brands of yerba mate, including Cachamia from Argentina, Armino from Uruguay and Canarias from Brazil, takes up 12 feet of one aisle. But one brand is sorely missed.
"They don't seem to have La-Hoja. That's my favorite one," says Florencio Sequeira, a native of Argentina, who loaded his cart anyway with nine pounds of another brand, for Sequeira a month's supply. He brews a cup or two every morning. "It's full of vitamins. And you know, I'm 76 and never in my life have I been sick."
Coffee drinkers, tea sippers, you have met your match. For natives of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay as well as Paraguay, the practice of drinking yerba mate (YER-ba MAH-tay), either hot or cold, is more common than coffee and tea consumption in this country.
For centuries the native Tupi-Guarani Indians of the region have collected the leaves of Ilex paraguarensis, or yerba mate, an evergreen member of the holly family. The thick, shiny leaves, mixed with water, are considered a stimulant and restorative tonic. Yerba mate is the most common ingredient in Tupi-Guarani herbal cures.
Open a bag of yerba mate and you find a crushed leaf, chopped stem and powder composition that looks something like dried, crumbled rabbit food or low-grade marijuana. Some brands are coarser than others, containing a good deal of stem.
How to make it? Simply add cold or hot, but never boiling, water. Boiling water produces an unpleasant biting flavor. Like coffee or tea drinkers, some mate drinkers use sugar. Others like the natural taste. The flavor is slightly bitter, then sweet and grassy-tasting.
Sharing a cup is a ritual. But that never stopped anyone from enjoying it on his own. And different people drink their yerba mate different ways for different reasons.
"I drink 10 to 20 cups in the morning, for the taste, always hot, and more on weekends," says Carlos Dilaudo, assistant to the cultural attache of the Embassy of Argentina. "To me, it's my personal drink that's good for the soul."
In Argentina, as well as in southern Brazil and Uruguay, yerba mate is consumed hot, usually in a cup made from a gourd, trimmed with metal. The beverage is sipped not directly from the gourd but through a metal straw called a bombilla (bom-BEE-ja), which strains the grassy mixture as you sip.
Dilaudo is a collector of antique, sterling silver-trimmed mate cups. He sometimes finds them in antiques shops near Rehoboth Beach, Del., and at the Sunday Georgetown Flea Market. He likens his daily ritual to "drinking strong coffee, but without the hyper feeling."
At construction sites in Buenos Aires, no work would be done if the foreman didn't allow the workers to pass the mate at every break. On the pampas, gauchos pass the mate around a campfire. Entire families share a mate at the beach.
One member of the group acts as the host, or cebador, refilling the cup with water from a thermos or kettle. The cebador refreshes the cup with a fresh supply of yerba mate when the drink becomes weak, usually after it has been passed seven or more times.
"It's our tradition," says Dilaudo, who sweetens his mate with a little sugar. "You receive some friends at home. Four or five people sit around. You have some nice conversation. Talk about soccer. Drink some mate."
At "Rod's Lounge" the mate is served in a guampa--a cup made out of a bull's horn. Rod is Rodrigo Aquirre, 18, the son of Juan Esteban Aquirre, Paraguay's minister of foreign affairs. Four times a week, five or more friends drop by the family's home in the Forest Hills section of Northwest Washington to socialize in a basement-level recreation room, fondly referred to as Rod's Lounge.
Rule number one is: "No hogging the guampa." When the bull's horn cup--a tradition for Paraguayans--has been drained, the bombilla makes a sucking sound. Then the proper thing to do is pass the cup to the host for a refill of water.
Aquirre's friends like their yerba mate served the Paraguayan way, cold. They call the drink terere (pronounced TEH-da-dae)
They surf the Web, check e-mail, watch MTV. And as they do, these pals sip terere by the gallon, horn after horn.
"It's the best drink in the world. Better than Coca-Cola. Terere really satisfies," says Aquirre, a senior at the Heights School in Potomac. "It's a healthy thing that young people can do, a good way to get together and not drink beer."
Also known as Jesuit's tea, yerba mate is grown on plantations the first of which were established by missionaries in the 17th century in tropical and subtropical regions of southern South America.
The leaves were once harvested by hand but today advanced technology plays a role in every part of the manufacturing process. The machine-harvested leaves are scorched by direct flame. (That gives the drink a smoky flavor.) Then the leaves are rotated in a cylinder dryer and crushed in a milling machine. It's believed that aging gives dried yerba mate the proper aroma and flavor that consumers enjoy.
Apparently, mate drinkers love the stuff. More than 300,000 tons of yerba mate is processed each year.
Some swear by yerba mate's slimming effect.
"I, for one, think of it as a diet drink," says Norma Cardozo Saldivar, second secretary of the Embassy of Paraguay. Drinking mate "curbs my appetite, I don't feel hungry. All the young women go for it," she says between sips from a horn guampa. It's personally engraved "Norma C.S."
Such guampas, some hand-carved or inlaid with a flag motif, often with the logo of a soccer club, are crafted by prisoners in Paraguay and sell for about $10.
Some brands of yerba mate furnish nutrition facts on the package. Some don't. Campesino Clasica, a product of Paraguay, lists amounts of vitamins C, B1, B2, potassium, calcium, iron magnesium and iodine.
According to a published report by the Review of Natural Products, yerba mate also contains more than 15 amino acids, nicotinic acid and carotene. Leaf analysis indicates the presence of chemical compounds called xanthines, which include caffeine. The amount of caffeine per serving, or "mate round," was estimated by the review at 100 milligrams. (The Food and Drug Administration agrees with the review's findings.) In contrast, a seven-ounce cup of drip coffee has 115 to 175 milligrams of caffeine.
Yerba mate is also catching on with folks who shop at health food stores and food co-ops.
"People are just getting hip to it. But already sales are pretty steady for a new product," says Tali Mozes, a supplements buyer for the Common Market food co-op in Frederick.
The yerba she sells is "certified organic." Says Mozes: "I'm a known user." Her preparation of choice is the "mate latte" made with soy milk and a little honey.
"It's like this little boon in the tea section," says Sue Delettera, a manager at the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Co-Op. Mate hit the shelves in September. Sales have been increasing each month.
Delettera flavors her own mate drink with essence of lemon grass and ginger as well as a little whole milk. "It works for me," she says. "And there are a lot of other people who want an alternative to coffee."
Such updated versions of yerba mate, laced with soy milk or herbs that some might think better suited for Thai chicken and sipped from a tea cup or coffee mug, are unlikely to spread to Paraguay.
"That's creative. But it's not mate, not terere anymore," says Norma Cardozo Saldivar. "I would think of that drink as more of a pastry. You diet. You have been good. You reward yourself with cake once in a while."
WHAT IS IT?
Yerba mate (YER-ba MAH-tay)--The dried leaves, and often stems, of a perennial tree, Ilex paraguarensis, a member of the holly family, cultivated in South America.
Mate (MAH-tay)--The name given to both the beverage and drinking cup when it is served hot. The mate cup is typically made from a hollowed gourd.
Terere (TEH-da-dae)--Yerba mate served cold.
Guampa (GUAM-pa)--A cup, typically made from a bull's horn, used primarily in Paraguay, to drink cold yerba mate.
Bombilla (bom-BEE-ja)--A metal straw, sometimes made of silver, with a filter "bulb" at one end, used with both the mate gourd and guampa.
HOW TO MAKE IT
A yerba mate infusion, hot or cold, can be made in the same manner as tea. Paper filter bags containing yerba mate, often combined with other herbs, are a no-brainer. Loose-leaf yerba mate requires straining before drinking. Any type of cup or mug can be used. Some people add a little sugar or honey, a mint leaf or lemon twist. Others wouldn't think of it.
Still, for a traditional mate experience a proper gourd or bull's horn cup as well as a metal straining straw are essential. A thermos of hot or iced water should always be at the ready for refills.
Fill the guampa or mate gourd from 1/2 to 3/4 full with dry yerba mate. Tilt the cup to one side leaving an empty space from the bottom to the top rim. Nestle the metal straw into the opening with the mouthpiece pointing toward you. Fill with cold or hot (but never boiling) water.
Do not use the metal straw as a stir stick. That clogs the tiny openings.
Wait two minutes. It's ready to drink. (At a traditional yerba mate sharing event the first cup is always dedicated in memory of St. Thomas.) Sip until you hear the sucking sound. Refill with water. Pass it on. Refresh the cup with fresh herbs after six to 10 servings.
WHERE TO BUY IT
In the Washington area yerba mate is sold in bulk or in packages of loose leaf. Latin America markets, as well as some Italian markets, carry packaged brands from Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Some health food stores and food co-ops carry brands from Paraguay packaged, loose leaf and sometimes in bulk. They also sell yerba mate mixed with other herbs in paper filter bags. Prices are sometimes higher than at Latin markets.
Brands vary in flavor, strength and the amount of stems used in the processing. Yerba mate from Paraguay, as well as the traditional bull's horn cup (guampa), mate gourd and metal straw (bombilla), are available by mail from Yerba Mate Revolution, P.O. Box 80926, Albuquerque, N.M. 87198; call 505-255-6889 or Web site: www.yerbamate-revolution.com.
Casa Pena, a Latin American market at 1636 17th St. NW (call 202-462-2222), stocks five brands of yerba mate, the mate gourd and bombilla. A 2.2-pound bag of Rosamonte yerba mate is $5.60.
We also found yerba mate at:
Bethesda Co-Op, 6500 Seven Locks Rd., Bethesda; call 301-320-2530.
Common Market Co-Op, 5813 Buckeystown Pike, Frederick; call 301-663-3416.
El-Chaparral Market, 2719 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; call 703-276-8337. Also 7202 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; call 703-207-1777.
Glut Food Co-Op, 4005 34th St., Mount Rainier; call 301-779-1978.
Rodman's Discount Gourmet, various locations.
Takoma Park/Silver Spring Co-Op, 201 Ethan Allen Ave., Takoma Park; call 301-891-2667.
Uncommon Market Co-Op, 1041 S. Edgewood St., Arlington; call 703-920-6855.
Vace Italian Delicatessen, 3315 Connecticut Ave. NW; call 202-363-1999. Also 7010 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; call 301-654-6367.