Annatto Seeds – An Ancient Dye and Flavoring with a Global Reach

Achiote seeds from glooarte on Flickr
Photo from glooarte’s flickr collection, subject to a CC License

One of my favorite dishes from the summer was the “Achiote Rice Supper with Pork Carnitas” from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, a dish of rice, pork and vegetables that features the flavor of annatto seed powder. After bringing a vegan version of the dish to a party and trying to explain it to the other guests, I realized that I didn’t know much about annatto, so I made some trips to local libraries to learn more.

Annatto, an Ancient and Modern Dye

Annatto, Latin name Bixa orellana, is a large, fast-growing shrub endemic to the New World tropics (the Encyclopedia of Life has a map of its distribution). The plants produce clusters of relatively tasteless fruit, as well as seeds with a thin, highly-colored resinous coating.  This coating is used as a dye, which is one of the oldest known dyes and has been used since antiquity.  It was first used to color cheese in England over 200 years ago – notably Cheshire cheese and red Leicester. These days, annatto seed extract is used in all sorts of food applications like butter, margarine, non-dairy creamer, cooking oil, salad dressings, and ice cream (the extract has a specific number in the chemical database: CAS 8015-67-6). *

In Spanish-speaking countries, the flavor of annatto seeds are what’s important.  There, the seed and pastes are called “achiote”, a word that is derived from the indigenous Nahuatl language in present-day Mexico.**  Cooks in the Yucatan region of Mexico use the brick-red powder in all sort of applications:  mixed with garlic, vinegar and herbs and rubbed on fish before grilling, or used as part of a flavorful marinade for ultra-slow-cooked pork, to give two examples.***

According to Diana Kennedy’s monumental Oaxaca al Gusto, people in Oaxaca, Mexico use the seed powder as a paste on its own, without added condiments as they do in the Yucatan.  In the Sierra Juarez and Mixe regions of Oaxaca, they use the powder in a hot drink called Atole Colorado.  The bulk of the recipe (for a huge crowd) is wheat berries (9 lb.) and cacao beans (2 1/4 lb.), both ground to a paste.  For flavoring, a small amount of cinnamon stick (2 oz.) and achiote seeds (2 oz.) is added. Add enough hot water to make a drinkable texture, and you have a hearty, flavorful beverage.

Annatto Around the World

The annatto section of Herbs & Spices, the Cook’s Reference, by Jill Norman (DK Publishing, 2002) looks at how the seeds are used around the world.  Given its wide natural range and the transoceanic trade of the colonial era, it’s not surprising to see the seed all over the world.  In several areas of South America, the seeds are used to flavor oil by cooking them in oil over low heat and straining to give a flavorful, brightly-hued oil. In Jamaica, the seeds are used to flavor a dish called “ackee” (or perhaps “saltfish and ackee”, since ackee is also the name of a fruit). In Vietnam, the seeds are used to flavor oil.

Achiote plant by kaitlyn rose on Flickr
Photo from kaitlyn rose’s flickr collection, subject to a CC License

In the Philippines, a famous pork and chicken dish called “pipian” shows the influence of Spanish trade between the Americas and Asia, as the recipe in Memories of Philippine Kitchens: Stories and Recipes from Near and Far, by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2006) indicates.  Among the ingredients are two New World flavorings, achiote & epazote.  A post from Market Manila has a pipian recipe that also includes epazote and achiote.  And half-way down this page at Market Manila, you’ll find a photo of a basket of annatto seeds (“achuete”) at the Vigan City market (on the northwestern part of Luzon Island).

In another post, I provide my vegan interpretation of Bayless’s rice supper, Rice and Vegetables in Achiote Broth.

* The information in this paragraph is from the Handbook of U.S. Colorants: Foods, Drugs, Cosmetics and Medical Devices, Daniel M. Marmion (3rd Ed., Wiley & Sons, Inc., ISBN 0-471-50074-7) and The Oxford Companion to Food (Alan Davidson, Ed.).
**  Achiote is one of many important words that came from the Nahuatl language. Some others are avocado, cacao, chocolate, chili, coyote, tomato, and tamale.
*** Season 5 of Bayless’s Mexico One Plate at a Time TV series focused on the Yucatan and consequently has quite a few uses of achiote paste.  In recent weeks I’ve run into achiote on two Northern California restaurant menus.  The first, which I didn’t try, was at Comal in downtown Berkeley, where they sell “achiote rice” as a side dish.  The second was at Mateo’s Cocina Latina in Healdsburg (Sonoma County), where we ate various items that had been marinated in an achiote paste and grilled.

1 comment

  1. Hello!

    I've been occasionally dropping by your blog since I dropped it into my bookmarks. I originally found your post on "okra leaves", long ago. (And, I recently found frozen jute leaves at a local Asian market.)

    I live in Tampa, FL, where annatto / achiote is in the "Ethnic" aisle of every grocery store, as well as the seasonings aisle of every Asian market (usually by Vietnamese products).

    It's quite tasty, and from some quick searches on Pub Med, toxicity is not a concern. (Yes, something that does *not* cause cancer in laboratory rats! Huzzah!)

    I generally use the powder. It gives a wonderful dark, reddish-gold color to oil that is persistent (and will stain clothes). I personally like to add a little turmeric as well. The shades of yellow are different (turmeric seems to have a little green in it), and the annatto + turmeric mix is a deep, rich golden color.

    I've been told by Puerto Ricans that annatto is often used to make an inexpensive "chicken and yellow rice". A generous dose of annatto with a little turmeric is how I make yellow rice. (And, my secret ingredient is a pinch of galangal powder to replace High John the Conqueror Root.)

    The taste is a bit like peppercorn. Personally, I would say a very mild white pepper. There is also a spicy undertone. The only thing I can think of to compare is grains of paradise / Guinea pepper, but annatto is distinct.

    If you are just using it for the color, you can buy the cheap powder. The taste will be milder.

    If you use seeds, *count them*. The seed itself is very hard, and if it's cooked soft enough to actually be chewable, is mildly toxic. The seeds are generally added to the oil first, when there is nothing else in the oil. That makes it easier to make sure you scoop them all out. A stainless steel tea ball could also be helpful here. The powder contains only the red pith, and so can be used freely in oil.

    The carotenoid dye is oligophylic and hydrophobic, which means the powder will just float on hot water and not react. It will only release its color in oil.

    Lastly, you can look up the chemistry on Wikipedia. Something to note, though. The yellow bixin, with alkalies (read: vegetables), becomes norbixin, which is water, and blood, soluble. It is fairly non-reactive. What this means is that it will be absorbed into the blood and eliminated through the kidneys. Eating something with a lot of annatto can, a few hours later, make your urine a bit dark and give it an odd "spicy" smell. It's completely harmless.


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