Annatto, or, in spanish, Achiote, is a well-loved spice in Central and South American cuisines. Unlike some of the other herbs and spices I’ve researched, there are many recipes, descriptions and uses listed for annatto seeds, achiote paste, and annatto oil. The trick to using this spice is figuring out what you want to do with it.
Annatto (achiote in Spanish) hails from the Caribbean, Central America, and the warmer parts of South America. Along with chocolate and tomatoes, Annatto traveled back to the Old World with the Spanish Conquistadors and found a place in India and other South Asian countries, with climates that allow the plant to thrive.
In its various native languages it is called achiotl, aploppas, and urucu. It has an earthy, dusky flavor that can add depth and richness to dishes.
When ripened, the seeds of the plant are ground and mixed into a paste for marinating meats. The fresh seeds are used directly in sauces and stews. The oil can be extracted and used as both a culinary flavoring and coloring. Annatto also serves as a good substitute for the more expensive spice Saffron, providing a similar color, and a similar, though not identical, flavor.
Dye created from the seeds is used as body paint and lipstick by the tribes of Central America, which is why the plant is sometimes called the Lipstick Tree. (Also, when the pods open, they kind of look like lips).
The oil extracted from Annatto is used to color cheese, popcorn, margarine, and other foods. However, it has recently been replaced by a synthetic version of beta carotene, that is cheaper and easier to make.
You can find achiote paste in Latin or Mexican markets, already mixed with other spices. All you have to do is dissolve it to consistancy in water, and then marinade what it is you want to cook. The seeds can also be found in specialty markets. Even though it may take a little work to track them down, the unique flavor added by annatto makes it worth the effort.
Here’s a simple recipe for Achiote Paste.
- 1/4 cup annatto seed
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 5 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 1/2 cup bitter orange juice (Seville) or 1/3 cup white vinegar