As I’ve mentioned before, my state of Rio Grande do Sul often feels a bit like Texas. The main similarity is a general sense of cowboy culture, but of course, these two cowboy cultures are completely different. And one of the main things that sets the Rio Grande do Sul gaúcho apart from your average Texan is chimarrão.
Chimarrão refers to this whole special process of using a metal straw called a bomba to sip yerba mate tea from a hollow gourd called a cuia. Yerba mate served this way is also popular in Argentina and Uruguay, and I once had it with my host family in Chile, but around Caxias do Sul, it seems to be a way of life.
If you go to the park on a weekend, you’ll see people hanging out and sharing chimarrão. I’ve seen people drink it at get-togethers as well as at work. And although I don’t spend a ton of time at the mall, but my host mom reassures me I’ll see people toting their cuias there, too.
Chimarrão is enough of an institution that I’ve even seen free hot water spigots in various public places, just so people can fill up in case the giant thermoses they bring with them run dry.
According to official gaucho tradition, there are all sorts of rules that govern chimarrão. The host will fill the cuia about halfway with yerba mate, cover the cuia with a flat plastic lid, and tilt the cuia sideways so all the tea falls to one side. Then the host will carefully right the cup and fill the empty space with hot water. Once they insert the straw—at first parallel to the edge of the cup, and then turning it ninety degrees once its inside—the chimarrão is ready to go.
Typically the host drinks first, consuming all the tea in the cuia. Although the water mixes freely with the tea in the cuia, the bomba has a filtered bottom that strains out the tea grounds when you take a sip. Once the host is done, s/he refills the cuia and passes it along to the next person. (Using their right hand only!)
This person then proceeds to drink the entire cuia-ful of tea. The bomba will typically make a honking noise once you reach the bottom, which is a sign for an attentive host that s/he should retrieve the cuia, add more hot water, and pass it along to the next person. Taking too long during your turn is called sleeping with the cuia.
To be explicit: when you’re taking chimarrão, everyone in the group shares one cup. It’s apparently a rule of chimarrão not to call it unsanitary, but at least one of the other Fulbrighters in my mentorship group is convinced it’s the reason she got sick so early on. (Although it is not true that drinking chimarrão somehow gives you throat cancer, which is apparently a fear here.)
Also, to be frank, it sort of looks suspicious. I have to admit that I wasn’t surprised when one of my students told me how she was trying to drink chimarrão in a park while studying abroad in the States, and some random woman came up and accosted her for doing drugs right out in the open.
Anyway, I went to visit the Casa de Erva Mate with my family when they came to visit, located on a scenic tourist route outside the nearby city of Bento Gonçalves. It turned out to be a charming little grist mill that has since been converted into an artesanal yerba mate operation.
This little family-run operation offered a tour of the mill to demonstrate how yerba mate is processed. First, the ends of branches are snipped off the yerba mate tree, then tumbled in a dryer above a hot flame. They’re later stuck in an oven of sorts to dry, but this initial tumble apparently helps the leaves maintain their green color. Once dried, the leaves are ground into powder and passed through a sieve in order to produce the tea you can buy in grocery stores.
From this humble leaf has sprung an entire culture, complete with giant roadside statues and little cuia-shaped magnets in souvenir stores. I’ll be the first to admit that Caxias do Sul feels familiar in a lot of ways—but chimarrão is one of the things that help set it apart.