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What do you do with yerba mate?

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Updated: March 7, 2014 1:23PM

On a bus from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas in Chile’s Patagonia region, I was freezing. When we stopped at a rest area, a fellow traveler offered a sip of his warm beverage.

“I have a throat cold,” I said, hesitating, “and I don’t want to make you sick.”

“Have a drink,” the man said encouragingly. “It’s a symbol of friendship.”

Who could say no to that?

The beverage was warm water (though some gin may have been added), poured over yerba mate, an herb in the holly family, somewhat bitter and containing caffeine. It’s quite typical for travelers to carry a thermos of hot water with them to constantly replenish their herb-filled cups.

Just to clarify some terms, the container that holds the beverage actually is the mate (mah-tay); the herb is yerba mate, and the tea is sipped through a metal straw with a filter called a bomilla (bohm-bee-ah). Research indicates that mate may contain antioxidants that strengthen the immune system.

Drinking it gives one the same kind of “lift” as a cup of coffee. At home, we sometimes drink yerba mate instead of coffee. It definitely needs sugar, however, as the herb has a vegetable bitterness that’s just too heavy for people who didn’t grow up with the stuff.

Purchase yerba mate at Latin American groceries, including Buenos Aires Liquor and Deli (3100 N. Cicero). To prepare (without traditional gear):

1. To 1 tablespoon yerba mate, add 11/2 cups warm — not boiling! — water.

2. Let sit two minutes; strain.

3. Add honey. — David Hammon

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