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Yerba maté, where the moon and cloud goddesses meet

BEIRUT: The Guarani people of South America have a legend to explain the origin of yerba maté, a popular hot herbal drink. One day the goddesses of the moon and cloud came to earth and came across a jaguar, which was about to attack them when an old man stepped in and saved them from harm. To thank him, the goddesses presented him with a new plant, from which a “drink of friendship” could be made.

Maté, a drink prepared by steeping the cut and dried leaves of the yerba maté tree – a species of holly officially known as Ilex paraguariensis – is today enjoyed across large areas of South America and is the national drink of Argentina. It has also become a much-loved beverage in parts of Syria and Lebanon.

The plant, which resists cultivation outside its native South America, was brought back to the area by Lebanese and Syrian migrants who had moved to the region during the early 20th century. Having adopted the drink as their own, they continued their maté drinking habit when they returned to the Middle East. In the years before the civil war, Syria was the biggest importer of maté in the world.

Imbibing the “drink of the gods” is not like having a cup of coffee in the morning. It is a social ritual that brings communities closer together. Enjoyed in Lebanon primarily in the Chouf and other Druze areas, the ritual of preparing and drinking maté has been imported along with the plant itself.

The drink gets its name from the vessel from which it is traditionally drunk – normally with a metal straw known as bombilla in Spanish – a small cup called a maté made from the dried shell of a gourd, a hard-shelled bulbous fruit.

Much like the process of smoking a nargileh, a single gourd cup and bombilla are shared by a group. They pass the beverage around, drinking from the same straw, to symbolize a bond of acceptance and friendship.

Lebanese chef Joumana Accad – author of the blog Taste of Beirut and two cookbooks due to be released next year – describes a recent visit to the Chouf, where she enjoyed maté with a Druze sheikha and her family. As the gourd cup was passed around, she says, the sheikh and his son recited poetry, and the sheikha cleaned the bombilla with a piece of lemon peel before each new person drank.

“It is a social ritual because you pass it around,” Accad says. “Definitely you feel the connection when you’re doing this with other people. It’s a completely different experience than having someone give you your own cup of tea while they drink from their cup. This is something where you’ve got to get closer to people.”

Accad, whose family originally hails from the Chouf, says maté has become an intrinsic part of Druze culture. “We have a home in the Chouf,” she explains, “so I go there all the time, and every village has a little grocery store with a maté sign outside – that’s a sure sign that it’s a Druze village.”

The sheikha told Accad she drank maté because it helped to relieve stress and gave her energy. Scientific studies have found that the plant – which contains enough caffeine to satisfy tea and coffee fiends – has numerous health benefits and boasting several important vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc and calcium. It also contains antioxidants and amino acids.

Maté has a unique flavor, somewhat akin to strong green tea, and is often described as having a grassy taste. Some people find the dried leaves alone bitter, so sugar or honey is often added to the brew. Milk can also be added to taste.

Although maté is widely available in local supermarkets, making it easy to brew at home, it is not commonly served in cafes. The exception is The Maté Factory in Aley, where a whole menu has been created around imaginative uses of the South American plant.

The spacious cafe-restaurant, which transforms into a bar at night, serves everything from a traditional maté tray – a gourd cup and bombilla accompanied by a wooden bowl of dried leaves, sugar, hot water and snacks – to their own unique concoctions.

The drinks menu – shaped like a gourd cup and straw – offers a wide range of hot and cold drinks infused with the healthy herb. Those who can’t bear to go without their coffee fix can order a Shaman Maté Latte – a mixture of espresso and hot milk infused with a maté tea bag. For something sweeter, try the Matéccino, a maté tea bag brewed with hot milk and vanilla syrup.

Yerba maté can also be enjoyed cold, making the perfect refreshing summer drink. Known as tereré, the cold maté can be prepared simply by adding cold water to the leaves, but herbs such as mint or lemongrass are often added for a more complex flavor. The leaves can also be mixed with fruit juices such as orange, lime or pineapple, rather than water, for a sweeter drink.

Local supermarkets often sell packets of the dried leaves already infused with flavors such as lemon – for a summery twist try adding exotic fruit juices such as mango or passion fruit, or even creating a cooling maté milkshake.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 12, 2013, on page 2.

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