For Argentinians, drinking the tea-like beverage mate (pronounced "mah-tey") is an intrinsic part of everyday life, but to the uninitiated, it’s a custom that requires some explanation. 

First, there's the confusion of the name itself: the word mate is used for both the drinking gourd and the bitter tea infusion it holds. 

Then there are the complicated tasks of preparing mate and knowing how to drink it (through a metal straw with its own strainer, no less), not to mention the subtleties involved in sharing mate with friends (a minefield of faux pas). And as for the taste? Well, it takes some getting used to. Here’s what you need to know about drinking the popular Argentine drink.

A group of students sit on the grass and chat in a park in the sunshine. One holds a thermos and is passing a gourd of mate to another
When drinking mate in a group, one person serves and they take the first taste © FluxFactory / Getty Images

What you’ll need 

First you'll need a mate, a hollow drinking gourd traditionally made from a squash, which holds the yerba, the leaves of a plant that is native to northeast Argentina (look for packets of yerba in any Argentinian supermarket).

You'll also need a bombilla, a metal straw with a strainer at the end, and a thermos flask to fill with hot water.

How to prepare mate

Heat the water to between 167ºF (75°C) and 176ºF (80°C), but do not allow it to boil (electric kettles in Argentina have a special temperature setting for mate). 

Pour some yerba into your mate and give it a shake to remove some of the dust. Put the bombilla into the yerba, so that the strainer is near the bottom of the mate and the opening is at the top. Some people add sugar to the yerba to sweeten it.

How to drink mate

Holding the mate with one hand and the thermos in the other, carefully pour hot water into the gourd. Drink it immediately, by sipping the liquid through the bombilla. Keep the thermos near you and continue filling and drinking for as long as you like. 

The first mate poured is the strongest; after a while the yerba becomes “washed” (weakened).

A drink, with a lot of leaves settled on the surface, served with a metal straw
Mate is drunk by many Argentinians at the start of their day © Aneta_Gu / Shutterstock

When to drink mate

Many Argentinians start their day with mate, but it's also common to drink it in the afternoon, perhaps accompanied by a merienda (early evening snack) of cookies.

Mate etiquette

When drinking mate in a group, one person takes responsibility for serving everybody (the cebador). They will serve themselves first (it's polite to take the strongest hit), then pass the mate to each person in the group in turn. 

You should drink all the water in the mate (sip gently and avoid noisy slurping) before wordlessly returning it to the cebador. Saying gracias (thank you) indicates you do not wish to drink any more.

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