Discovering Yerba Mate with Friends

While having dinner with some friends from Brazil, our conversation turned to traditional Brazilian cuisine – the seafood in aromatic sauces, the barbecued meats seasoned with garlicky marinades, the cheese rolls that melt in your mouth, and the tea culture of Southern Brazil.  It turns out the South American cowboys, or gaúchos, have a long and unique tradition of drinking chimarrão.

Cuia, gourd-calabash used for yerba mate

The Cuia Gourd

Chimarrão is a tea made from yerba mate (erva-mate in Portuguese), a plant indigenous to South America.  Dried leaves and stems from the plant are placed in a container made from a gourd that has been hollowed out and dried, called a cuia. 

The cuia is often decorated with gold or silver.  Hot water – never boiling water because it makes the tea bitter – is then poured into the cuia.  After a few minutes of steeping, a bomba, which is a metal straw with a filter on one end, is placed in the gourd and the light, earthy, highly caffeinated tea is ready to be consumed.

Drinking Yerba Mate

Chimarrão can be sipped alone, but it is often consumed in a group as part of a ritual to foster social bonds.  There is an etiquette when drinking chimarrão with others that must be obeyed.  The host is the first person to pour water on the tea and then drink it.  This is thought to be polite because the first infusion tends to more bitter than the subsequent ones. Once all the tea is consumed, the host fills the cuia with water and passes it to the next person.  Usually, the cuia is passed from person to person based on economic or social status, but it can also be simply passed to the next person on the right.  

Each time it is passed, the cuia is refilled with water.  It is considered bad manners not to drink all the chimarrão in the cuia.  So, making a gurgling noise with the bomba, which indicates to the group that all the liquid has been consumed, is considered a polite gesture.  This ritual is done with family, friends, and colleagues to create unity and show allegiance to the gaúcho way of life.

Tea continues to amaze me.  Not only does tea stimulate the palate with its never-ending flavor varieties, but it has historical, social, and medicinal significance on every continent and across every culture.  When man evolved from the apes to become a distinct species, he discovered fire, invented hunting and farming, created language, and made a nice pot of tea.

This article has been updated from original April, 2010 publication. 

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