Asuncion Stories and Tips

Who Moved My Mate? On South American Infusions

Guarani Weaving Photo, Asuncion, Paraguay

Moving through South America can play confusing games with the Spanish language; the same noun can refer to different objects. Usually, that is of no concern to the casual traveller, unless it is related to food or other basic needs.

Despite the fabulous coffees of Brazil and Colombia, the main drinks at the southern outskirts of the continent are infusions of various herbs. These are generally known as “mate” (maa-tae), but the noun can refer to different drinks.

Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay call “mate” to a drink prepared out of “yerba-mate” (shaer-baa maa-tae). In Argentina and Uruguay, the ground shrub is used to fill up an empty kind of pumpkin which has the general shape and size of a regular cup, while in Paraguay a cow’s empty horn is used for that purpose alongside the pumpkin and the metallic cup variations. A metallic straw is used to drink the beverage. In Argentina and Paraguay a kettle is used to add the water while Uruguayans use a thermos; strange as it may seem each one defends its method fiercely. The nasty part is related to hygiene; if invited to drink with a group of people, then only one pumpkin is used and passed among the people. Whenever one finishes drinking, more water is added and the “mate” is passed to the next one without further formalities. The beverage is quite bitter and some people add sugar to it.

Paraguay is by far the hottest country among the three mentioned above; thus it is only natural than an iced version of the drink exists there. Less natural is that it is called “terere,” apparently there is no connection between the names of the cold and hot beverages despite being variants of the same. For the cold drink, a jug with cold water is served together with a proper “mate;” if the water includes aromatic herbs then it is called “terere con yuyos.”

If the variations until now weren’t confusing enough, when the border with Bolivia is crossed, then “mate” is transformed into a generic name to any tea prepared with herbs. The pumpkin disappears. There, a few leaves are added to a cup of hot water, or sometimes they are packed within regular filter paper, similarly to herb teas worldwide. The most popular infusion are “mate de coca,” which is prepared with coca leaves and “trimate,” and infusion prepared with three different herbs. Usually these are coca, anis and "manzanilla.”

Did I mention they find terms as cappuccino, late and espresso confusing?

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip