A Liquid Journey: Tea

If there is one thing that I have done consistently through my various trips and times spent around the world, it has been the act of drinking tea. Coming in many varieties, shapes and sizes, tea has been some what of a rock in my semi-nomadic life. As I am currently drinking Mate while writing this (will explain tea details shortly) I should mention where it all started. Actually to be honest I think it started with my Dad’s love of tea, while my earlier memories include him drinking cold Tea Java, and a more recent shift to PG tips, my own, lets be honest and call it an addiction, began a little differently. I was at a meeting that brought together Rotary Youth Exchange ‘outbounds’ (people like me who were heading off to spend a year abroad) and ‘inbounds,’ students from abroad spending their year in California. I was due to depart to Argentina and there happened to be an Argentinian girl at the meeting. To my surprise the girl gave me a Mate and some Yierba. She wanted to make sure I was as prepared as possible, and made an effort to teach me about Mate and how to drink it.

While tea and coffee do serve a social function in modern American culture (coffee, or café culture, being more pronounced) tea in other countries serves a much bigger purpose. It often has much tradition and custom surrounding how and when to drink it, different preparation methods that say different things about the person preparing it, and different ways to drink. Let me talk a little bit about a few countries and their tea habits, or at least the little bit I have learned about them.

Argentina: Yierba Mate

First of all its pronounced shayrba matay , which includes the Argentinian pronunciation of the LL and Y sound as a SH. Now, the ‘Mate’ is both the receptacle you drink from and the tea. Yierba, which means herb, or in this case, tea, is the actually tea that you drink, the words are used interchangeably but do have separate meanings. Mate is different than most tea we are used to,which comes from the same plant (yes Black Tea and Green Tea is the same plant.) Mate is a wild bush indigenous to the Parana River Basin of Paraguay and northern Argentina. During Spanish Colonization, the Jesuit Missionaries built compounds in which they attempted to convert the indigenous, provide education and domesticate the land to become sustainable. They also realized that there were massive trade networks throughout the region and a large demand for a drink made from the Mate bush. Mate was a plant that had not yet been domesticated, only harvested in the wild. So they went about this process, finally succeeding and making a significant profit in the process. This facilitated the drinking of Mate throughout the region, increased the amount traded and the spread of the tea. Going all the way through the southern cone, east to Brazil and even north into Peru.

So enough with the history, why would people drink Mate? Well, as the Arabs like to point out with olive oil, its good for everything! Good for your eyes, skin and hair. It is filled with nutrients and is said to have sustained the Gauchos (Argentine cowboys) who spent most of their days on Las Pampas herding cattle, leading to a diet of meat and very few nutritious vegetables, in came Mate to the rescue, and born of it was one of the strongest elements of Argentine culture.
While I am a big fan of coffee and other types of tea, mate has always felt different. I read somewhere (but cant back it up with references I apologize) that the difference is the caffeine like stimulant in Mate affects the muscular system, where as with coffee it goes for the nervous system. Hence the jittery feeling that comes with too much coffee, compared to the feeling of concentration and a re-energized body that comes with drinking Mate.

Mate w/ yierba and bombilla

When drinking Mate you need a number of things. First, is the Yierba. Next is water that is heated to just before the boiling point, too hot and it will burn the tea (not to mention your tongue.) You will also need a Bombilla, a metal straw that comes with a filter at the end. As Mate is a looseleaf tea, you need the filter to make sure you don’t get a mouthful of green stuff. The Mate itself is traditionally a gourd (about the size of your fist or bigger) that is dried and decorated. Sometimes they are wrapped in leather or metal, often with different designs or patterns of animal hair. Occasionally you will see one that is placed inside the foot of a pig, using the hoof as a stand (those are a little awkward to drink from.) After filling up the gourd ¾ of the way, you add the hot water. The water is drunken by one person and then refilled. There is typically one person who serves the mate (Cebar el mate.) That person will be in charge of refilling the Mate and passing it to the next person, one Mate may be shared within groups of over 4-6 people. The drinker is careful not to say ‘thank you’ once they have finished, as this is the signal that you would no longer like to receive the drink when it comes back around the circle.
Mate is a very social drink. We would drink Mate after dinner, in the park, with friends while playing the card game Truco. Any trip to the beach or basically just any trip anywhere would include Mate and a thermos full of hot water. They even have hot water dispensers (like a vending machine that spits out hot water) at most gas stations along the highways.

For me, Mate has become a near daily occurrence. I love the taste (very bitter, not everyone’s favorite) and the way it raises your energy level without the jittery feeling of coffee. Although if it is your first time, becareful how much you drink, because more than a few rounds of it and you may be up all night. Unfortunately, the further I go from Argentina the fewer people I find willing to share un matecito with . And I find myself more often than not drinking by myself, which is not really how mate should be drunk!

Ok, less about me and more about tea!



San Bernardo, Argentina


JORDAN- Shay ma nana

The next step we’ll take in this tea drinking saga, is to Amman Jordan. Again, supported along the way by Rotary, having received a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship, I spent 7 months in Amman studying the Arabic language and culture, a crucial part of which is tea. Tea in Jordan, or ‘shy’ (yes, like chai) is just as social as it is in Argentina. While they do drink lots of coffee (what we think of as Turkish coffee, but coffee has more importance in the Gulf) tea is still very important. In Jordan (and most of the Levant) the tea is black tea (surprising to me is that it is usually Lipton,) but what makes it unique is how it is prepared.

Pouring Tea in Jordan

When serving tea, the drinker is given a small glass cup (kind of looks like a mini candle holder) and served out of kettle. Sugar is a must and a drinker is given the options of sweet, ‘helo,’ medium sugar, wasawt, or no sugar, saada. This last one is reserved for times of mourning, and therefore not commonly ordered, which is unfortunate for me as I’m not a big sugar fan. Usually you don’t get an option and you’re served ‘shay helo.’ But no tea can be complete without some fresh mint! Mint, nana (heavy A, like you’re saying ahh for the dentist) is key to making Arab tea. It was the best to be able to go down to the market and buy a huge thing of fresh mint and throw it right in your tea!

Tea with Mint

Any social setting, saying hi to someone, stopping by their house or shop, asking directions or any question, and you’ll receive an offer to drink tea, most of which I would recommend you take them up on. I remember after school we used to go up to a café just above the University of Jordan. We would sit, get a bowl of hummus, arghele (hookah, or water pipe) and some mint tea. Sitting on Turkish style cushions, trying to study but distracted, by the mint, smoke and chick peas, listening as the call to prayer went off across the street, I realized the need for tea, to slow down yet pick up, to give time for conversation, family and friends. Tea makes it happen.

So just as I began to enjoy my sugar coated mint tea, I began to hear rumors of something I didn’t believe at first. “Mate in Syria,” moostaheel!

SYRIA- Mate (round two)

First I have to mention that on my way into Damascus, the cab we took had no back window and the driver was rocking out to ‘We will Rock You’ by Queen, not quite what I expected but I liked it. While walking around the old town , I was stopped in my tracks by a little shop which had a wide variety of things for sale out front. The usual dried fruits and tourist trinkets, but also a hanging display of Mates! And in the back was a shelf full of Yierba ! It was true, they drank Mate in Syria!

Hanging Mates at Shop in Damascus

I bought myself some yierba, jerry-rigged a mate and bombilla and was back at it. Let me quickly just interject with a life lesson my host dad taught me before I left Argentina. He said that in the unfortunate case that you find yourself with Yierba but nothing to drink out of, you can do the following. Find any Styrofoam cup, a ball point pen, pin or sharp thin metal object and a lighter. Take out the ink part, melt the bottom of the plastic on the pen closed, heat the metal pointy thing till its red, then poke 4 to 6 small holes in the bottom of the pen. This will give you the perfect little filter that, once it dries, you can use with your Styrofoam cup to drink your mate, viola! (although I’d be curious as to how much this increases your chances of getting cancer, drinking out of melted plastic can’t be the best thing for you.)

So back to Damascus, while drinking at the hostel, one of the employees came up to me and asked what I was doing.

“drinking mate” I replied.

He said he knew that, he drank it all the time. But why was I, an ajnabee (foreigner) drinking it.

I then explained that I began drinking it in Argentina and recently found it here. He went on to explain about Mate in Syria, and I went on to learn more and more during my 5 months drinking Mate in Damascus.

Drinking Mate in Damascus Hostel

Currently Mate is mainly a coastal and rural thing, not quite liked by the urban populace, but still very common throughout Syria. Mate first came to Syria along with a large return of its diaspora. The Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) saw a large exodus in the mid 1800s and later, people going out in search of better lives. A large portion of them ended up in South America, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Well many of those that had lived in Argentina returned after becoming (or not) successful , bringing with them a habit that had been ingrained in them by Argentine culture.

Syria is now the biggest importer of Mate. But it wasn’t just a few returnees that spread the drink throughout the country, it had a little help. While Arabs love their tea, the social benefits of just sitting around, chatting and enjoying tea, the government and Army wasn’t the biggest fan. So at one point they banned soldiers from drinking tea while on duty, trying to cut back on the amount of down time they spent sitting around. Well, Mate was considered different than traditional black tea, and it made its way through the ranks as an alternative, not explicitly banned. It then became part of military culture, new recruits coming in would see everyone drinking Mate, try it themselves and eventually many of them brought the habit home to their villages. And as every male (except an only child I believe) is forced into mandatory service, a lot of people learned about and tried Mate.

So while it was still not as popular as regular black tea or coffee, mate had carved itself a place in Syrian culture. But like every piece of culture that is transferred around the world, Syrian Mate drinkers customized the way they drink to better fit their culture. While the Yierba was still the same, the process of drinking it had changed. Where Argentinians drink Mate out of usually large gourds, the Syrians drink out of the same small glasses they use for regular tea. Meaning that even the bombillas used are smaller than usual, just like with regular tea, not putting in sugar is not usually an option, and were as Mate is a very social and communal thing in Argentina, in Syria it took on more of an individual aspect. Most drinkers will have their own glass, and while they may drink together, it is much more common to see Syrian Mate drinkers alone than it would be for Argentinians. Syrians also sometimes use milk instead of water when making Mate.

Drinking Mate in Aleppo


While I am still learning about Kenya and its tea culture, I have learned a few things. One of which is that they love their milk. I had always thought of milk as something you add to tea, but in Nairobi, tea is brewed in milk, giving it a smoother less bitter taste. The Gulf States have their version of this as well, but I believe its made more with powdered milk.

A typical Kenyan breakfast is tea and a Mendazi. A Mendazi is a piece of fried dough usually in the shape of a triangle. And in the afternoon, tea again, only this time with a piece of bread or maybe a samosa (delicious triangle meat pastry of Indian influence.)

If I find out anything interesting, I let you know!

As for know, you have an overview of my tea journey. As a professor once said, ‘Tea, its what fuelled the Industrial Revolution,’ so you better get to drinking!

Omayyad Mosque, Damascus


Mate on Caye Caulker, Belize


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