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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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maté is a drink made from the dried leaves of the yerba, Ilex paraguariensis, indigenous to Paraguay and other parts of Latin America. Its use appears to go back to pre-Columbian times; later, it was adopted by the Spanish settlers. The name comes from the Inca word for a calabash: traditionally, gourds were used to make vesssels for the tea. Emerson (1908) writes:

The maté, speaking now of the vessel, is among the natives a small gourd [Crescentia cujete-cuca or Curcurbita lagenaria-cabaco] usually about the size of a large orange, the tapering end of the gourd serving as a handle. The top of the gourd is cut off, leaving a hole about an inch or so in diameter, through which the tea is sucked by means of a tube called a bombilla. These vessels are often silver-mounted and handsomely carved, and are prized accordingly. The bombilla is a tube seven or eight inches long and is either metal—silver—or a reed. At one end it is equipped either with a finely woven basket-work bulb or one of metal perforated with minute holes, so as to prevent the particles of the tea leaves from being drawn up into the mouth. The native method of serving it is to place a small quantity of the powdered leaves in the vessel and then pour boiling water upon them till the gourd is filled. It is necessary to drink the tea while it is hot, and until one learns how to manipulate the bombilla he runs a good chance of burning his lips and mouth, which of course furnishes much amusement for the spectators.