How To Prepare Yerba Mate (Chimarrão)

For a while now you've been interested in trying yerba mate, or, as it's known in Brazil, chimarrão. The only thing that's been holding you back has been a neat and clear tutorial. Well, here it is. Your moment has at last arrived.

You will need four things. A cuia or gourd, a bomba or metal straw, shredded mate leaf, and water heated to around 175 degrees Fahrenheit (boiling is 212).

The Cuia

The cuia is simply a polished squash gourd, usually secured and decorated by metal around the opening. They are often made with built-in stands, but sometimes are sold with naturally rounded bottoms. For the latter style you might choose to buy a stand to place it on. Cuias have been in use by Europeans from way before they enjoyed mate, since they make for great cups or even canteens.

The cuia is known in Spanish as a matero or mate, with the herb itself usually being referred to simply as yerba.

Etymological fun fact of the day: cuia comes from Tupi, an Amerindian language, but they are also historically known as cabaças, a Portuguese word garnered from the Arabic kara bassasa, or shiny pumpkin (recall that Iberia was occupied by Muslim invaders for 500 years). It's from the Arabic that the Spanish got their word for pumpkin, calabaza, and it's where we get our word "calabash", which refers to several different gourd uses, but most importantly to readers of this blog, the calabash pipe.

You know, Sherlock Holmes' pipe. And Hans Landa's. The calabash pipe is made of gourd and lined with meerschaum.

To buy a cuia in the United States, you need merely to find an international market with a Latin American focus. If you live in an area dominated by one Latin American ethnicity, you might have to research a little, because you will need a place that includes South Americans in their clientele, especially Argentinians and Uruguayans. You might not be able to find a large Brazilian-style cuia, but odds are very good that you will be able to find the smaller Argentinian materos. In the small town of Greer, South Carolina, where I hail from, we could drive down to La Unica Latin supermarket and buy a complete mate set, including bomba and thermos.

If you can't find a cuia don't worry. You can, of course, break with tradition. Use a mug, everything will be fine. One of those navy mugs designed to not fall over on a ship would be ideal.

The Bomba

Known more commonly by its Spanish name, bombilla, this metal straw can be purchased either separately or as part of a complete mate set at the same markets you'll find your cuia. The straws and even the thermoses to be found in the U.S. are often emblazoned with the logos of soccer teams. I'd buy a plain one, unless you don't mind being mistaken for a supporter of Club Atlético River Plate.

The straw ends in a hollow knobby tip with small perforations in it, which creates the filter. I recommend a straw with a tip that unscrews and separates from the body. This is in case your straw gets clogged, an event that is more likely in the U.S. since the mate often arrives after a lot of jostling and is more broken up. It's difficult to find a bag that doesn't have at least some leaf fragments that have basically broken down into powder.

The word chimarrão means wild, unbroken, undomesticated. In the spirit of that, I've never used the little filtering sleeves that some put over the tip of their straw. But that's just the stubborn old cuss in me. There can be no denying that it completely solves the clogging problem. A good U.S. solution would be to buy a box of empty tea bags, which can be found in most specialty coffee and tea shops. Just slip it over the tip before inserting into the cuia (which phrasing will clue you into why Brazilians call the filters camisinhas, or condoms).

The Thermos

It's a thermos.

The Yerba

In the United States you will almost certainly be buying an Argentinian brand, although you might come across brands from Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil. I never really settled on a favorite. Remember that it will be way way way cheaper in a Latin market than in a tea or health store. Just go to the Latin market. The only risk you'll run there is that occasionally the leaf will be a little pulverized, but hey, you'll be paying a fifth of the price.

You can research the virtues of the herb in depth elsewhere, but here I will tell you that it has a very enjoyable flavor, with some brands being a little more robust than others. It has some caffeine, other stimulants, and is absolutely butt-full of antioxidants and vitamins B.

Some people add sugar, which I do not recommend to you. It is common to add a sprig of some herb, such as mint. This can be delicious. Try different herbs, I don't think you can really go wrong here, although I almost always go pure. A little citrus zest can be nice as well, I'm told. I've never tried it (remember, stubborn cuss), but in the course of writing this post I stumbled across something I'm going to try and thus break with tradition in a most egregious way:

That's a hollowed-out grapefruit, y'all. I'm going to try it soon.

How To Prepare Your Mate

I made a video with a friend, which you can watch below. Remember not to overheat your water, it makes a real difference. If you pour boiling water, the mate will bubble angrily and taste bitter. And you don't simply pour the mate, then add water. You want it to look like this before you add water:

Ours doesn't come out looking quite like that in the video below, which we made in the park, but trust us (?!) when we say that usually it does. Using a coaster instead of your palm can help. See what I'm talking about below. And enjoy!