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Yerba Maté

John Thompson
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010

Health is the hype with yerba maté. Reported to pack more antioxidants than green tea, this national brew of Argentina is credited with an eyebrow-raising range of benefits, from lowering cholesterol to reducing certain cancer risks to improving digestion. But if your only maté experience has been to chug an adulterated version-flavored with honey or fruit to mask the drink's natural bite-as you sweat on the StairMaster, you're missing all the charm of this ancient and revered beverage.

Like so many of life's little pleasures, yerba maté enjoyed in the traditional way is about comfort, ceremony and camaraderie. The Argentines drink it hot from a hollowed gourd, and the process of making a proper one-placing some loose mix in the gourd, dampening it with a bit of water, inserting the filtered drinking straw, or bombilla, and filling the gourd with hot, but not boiling, water-is a ritual to be savored, like making a good espresso.

Although it's often mistakenly called one, yerba maté is not a tea. Rather it's an infusion made from a holly plant native to South America. Similar to but far earthier and stronger than green tea, it evokes grizzled gauchos and the sun-baked pampas, not California rolls and yoga mats.

The maté leaves pack a long-lasting punch, and hardcore drinkers will nurse the same brew for hours, adding more water to the still-potent leaves each time they drain the gourd. When Argentines gather to share a maté with friends, they do so literally, all drinking from the same gourd as the host passes it to each guest in turn. When you're given the gourd, you're expected to drink it all-the gurgle from the straw when you hit bottom is not considered rude-and then hand it back to the host, who will add water and pass it to the next guest. Sharing the maté is part of daily life for many Argentines, and if you go there, you will probably be asked to join in at least once.

But you don't have to jet down to Buenos Aires to enjoy maté. Any one of a number of online importers can set you up with a bag of loose leaves, a basic gourd and a bombilla for less than $25. Or spend a little more for one embellished with silver like the ones shown here. Bring it to the office to enjoy a maté break, and you're guaranteed to look cooler than the guy with the bottle of health juice on his desk.

Visit ma-tea.com, guayaki.com or yerba-mate.com

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