BAROUK, Lebanon: Steam rises from a gourd of yerba mate as Wissam al-Halabi takes another sip. Though the slightly bitter hot drink originates from South America, it has become a local tradition on this mountain in the Chouf, where residents have enjoyed it for more than a hundred years. Made from the leaves of a rainforest holly tree, yerba mate has been cultivated in South America for centuries. It is particularly popular in southern Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina, which dominates exports of the tea to Lebanon and neighboring Syria.
The two Middle Eastern countries are among the drink’s top importers, according to the International Trade Center, a U.N. and World Trade Center agency.
For Halabi, who works at a hotel in the bucolic setting of the central Lebanese town of Barouk, a midday break for mate is as necessary as a coffee or tea break anywhere else.
“Usually, if I know my friends are in the area, I’ll call them up and say I’ve put the kettle on and I’m getting ready to make some mate. Come over and let’s drink together.”
On this brisk afternoon, he sits with three friends around a small fire encircled by several bricks supporting a kettle. They pass around biscuits and sweetened bread as they discuss their favorite brands and the health benefits of the drink.
Ghada al-Halawi, another Barouk resident, likes to drink mate first thing in the morning, instead of coffee or tea.
“We don’t feel like we’ve woken up until we drink it!” she laughs, preparing both bitter and sweetened versions in traditional gourds that some people make at home from dried out squash shells.
Syria is the world’s biggest mate importer, bringing in more than 24,000 tons in 2012.
Its popularity has endured despite the war, with both regime troops and rebel fighters spotted imbibing the drink.
Argentina exported nearly 1,500 tons to Lebanon in 2012, making it the country’s third-biggest market.
Mate is particularly popular among adherents of the secretive Druze faith, who are scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean’s Levant region, mostly in Lebanon and Syria.
“It’s from Argentina originally and we’re told it came here hundreds of years ago, brought by Lebanese migrants who came back from there,” says Samah Halawi, a Druze sheikh.
Latin America became a prime destination for economic migrants from the Levant, particularly in the late-19th century, and a large community of their descendants still exists in Argentina and elsewhere in the region.
Halawi sports the white knit hat, thick moustache and loose pleated sherwal trousers that are traditional attire for the religious class of the Druze community. He considers the signature mate gourd and silver bombilla straw to be just as traditional as his clothing.
“Mate is something that’s very traditional here, something that we grew up with and saw our family drinking,” he says.
“It’s a social drink; we drink it together. Me and the guys get together often and drink as a group.”
Ghada al-Halawi likes to serve the drink with the dried figs, raisins and nuts that are traditional snacks in the area, though she adds that chips and biscuits have become more common.
When the gourd is passed from one person to the next, she cleans the bombilla with two pieces of lemon rind, which lightly flavors the straw.
The drink is best enjoyed with guests, she says, and she begins heating water as soon as visitors arrive at her house near a forest of Lebanon’s famed cedar trees.
“When someone comes to your house, you have to make mate for them,” she insists. “If you haven’t served them mate, it’s like you haven’t served them anything.”