Tea traditions in South America don’t just involve true tea (from the Camellia Sinensis bush). They also involve two beverages made from different plants entirely but confusingly also called tea by the locals and by various tea vendors: guayusa (pronounced gwa-YOO-sa) and Yerba maté (pronounced MAH-tay). All three beverages have to be considered when looking at tea traditions in that wondrous and varied continent.
Since the southern tip of South America (which is split between Argentina and Chile) reaches pretty far South, parts of the continent experiences the changes of the seasons, including Winter. I point that out because for some of us, South America is one big, steamy rainforest full of exotic plants and “critters.” Most of the countries down there were developed by the Spanish and Portuguese immigrants. Along with their languages and customs came tea.
Tea (or Yerba maté) is often part of a typical breakfast in Argentina and is also served in early evening along with pastries, small ham-and-cheese toasted sandwiches (tostados), etc. Drinking maté with friends has become a social ritual. You can find tearooms (also called cafés and Casas de Té) in both larger cities and smaller ones. In fact, there is a chain called Tea Connection where you get a full pot of tea, a large teacup and saucer and a little hourglass timer to make sure your tea is perfectly steeped. This “Tea Princess” approves!
Chile also has tearooms, especially in Santiago. In this long and skinny country, which hugs the southwestern coast of South America, tea drinkers enjoy an afternoon teatime called “Dessert Tea.” They also drink tea throughout the day, as well as other caffeinated beverages, including coffee.
Brazil, in the middle-eastern portion of the continent, has both rainforest and more arid parts. (Bear in mind that they mainly speak Portuguese there, not Spanish.) Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are well-known and riddled with tearooms, serving tea and buffet meals comprised of local dishes like pork sausages, black beans, and pigs’ feet, with rice and various boiled greens. Petit Palais Tea Room in Rio de Janeiro serves English-style teatime fare: cakes, pies, croissants, madeleines, toast, jam, cold cuts, and pâté.
Tea is grown in Argentina, Brazil, and a bit in Peru. Formerly, Brazilian teas were mainly the Chinese varietal, but now are more Japanese and have a lighter flavor, being grown at lower altitudes on low rolling hills in the Brazilian Highlands. They are mostly machine harvested and used in blends. Most of the tea is exported, about 70% to the U.S. Similarly, Argentinean tea is mostly sold in the U.S. with a little going to the U.K. and Europe. It’s used for blending and making iced tea beverages.
Yerba maté is originally from Paraguay and is now enjoyed in Uruguay, Argentina, and southern Brazil on a daily basis instead of coffee. It uses the leaves and small twigs of the Ilex paraguarensis tree. The liquid has a slightly bitter edge and an intensely earthy yet refreshing taste. To be truly traditional, pour it in a small, round pot called a maté gourd and sip it through a wooden or metal filtered straw, called a bombilla. Take health claims with a grain of salt.
Guayusa is from a tree related to the holly tree and is a native of the rainforest in Ecuador, South America. It has 90 mg of caffeine in 8 ounces versus 120 mg in coffee, 70 mg in Yerba maté, 50 mg in a typical cup of black tea, and 30 mg in a typical cup of green tea. [Source: Runa.org] This relatively high level of caffeine made me pass on trying it a few months ago. The caffeine levels in tea don’t bother me, but switching to a beverage that contained almost double the amount would probably have me bouncing off the walls. Boing! Ditto for Yerba maté.
Traditionally, the “cupping” of guayusa is a group event, everyone sharing in the smooth, naturally sweet brew. Like with black teas, use boiling water and let it steep for 4 to 7 minutes, depending on how strong you want it.
One final note: When it’s Winter here, it’s Summer in South America. A great place to head off to when the snows here get to be too much to take. Enjoy!