Yerba matéYerba maté (pronounced YER-buh MAH-tay), or hierba mate, sometimes called simply "mate", is a shrub native to South America, used as a tea. Like other teas, it is dried, chopped, and ground into a powderous mixture. Unlike other teas, mate is traditionally sipped from of a hollow gourd, through a special metal straw called a bombilla (bom-BEE-ya or bom-BEE-zha in Argentine pronunciation).
After placing an abundant (1/4 of gourd or more) amount of mate in the gourd, hot water is added. Sugar may be added if desired. The bombilla acts as both a straw and sieve. The submerged end is a fanned out hollow shape with small holes, allowing the tea in, but blocking the chunky matter that that makes up much of the mixture. A modern bombilla design uses a straight tube with holes, and uses a spring sleeve to act as a sieve.
Maté is traditionally drunk in a particular social setting. One individual assumes the task of server. This person typically fills the gourd and drinks its contents completely. The server subsequently refills the gourd and passes it to the next drinker who likewise drinks it all. The ritual procedes around the circle in this fashion until the maté is exhausted.
The plant (Ilex paraguariensis) is grown mainly in South America, more specifically in Argentina, Uruguay and South Brazil. The Tupi are reputed to be the first people who cultivated the plant; the first Europeans doing this were Jesuit missionaries. The drink has a pungent taste like a cross between green tea and coffee.
Mate contains xanthines, which are alkaloids in the same family as caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine--the well-known stimulants found in coffee and chocolate. Sellers of mate products often claim that the primary active xanthine in mate is "mateine", which they say is similar to caffeine but with fewer of its negative effects. Indeed some mate products are marketed as "caffeine-free" alternatives to tranditional coffee and tea. There is little scientific support for these beliefs. Researchers at Florida International University in Miami have found that yerba mate does contain caffeine, but some people seem to tolerate it better than coffee or tea. Further research is trying to determine why it bothers people less than other caffeine-containing beverages.