Annatto (Bixa orellana)
Annatto is an orange-red seed which is used for both colouring and flavouring in Latin American and Caribbean cuisines.
Annatto has a slightly peppery flavour with only a little bitterness.
Annatto’s aroma is floral with hints of peppermint and nutmeg.
Annatto is used to colour cheeses (including Cheddar), butter, rice, stocks, smoked fish and stews. In Mexico, annatto is combined with black peppercorns, cloves, cumin, coriander seeds, dried oregano, garlic and wine vinegar to make recado rojo paste, which is in turn used to make traditional Mexican pollo pibil. Annatto pairs well with beef, egg, fish (salt cod in particular), onions, pork, chicken, rice, tomatoes and dairy products. It combines well with allspice, chillies, cloves, cumin, garlic, oregano and paprika.
The evergreen achiote trees grow spiky seed pods that open when ripe to release about 50 red, triangle-like seeds. The seeds are dried and sold whole or ground through spice merchants.
The achiote trees are native to South America however now days it not only grows in Brazil but also in parts of Asia and the Philippines. The Mayans used the seeds to make war paint and lipstick and therefore it is sometimes called the lipstick tree. In India annatto is called ‘sindoor’ and is applied to the foreheads of women to show they are married.
Annatto has been used throughout history for its reported ability to calm heartburn, control fevers and also has been used as an ingredient in suncream and insect repellent.
Facts about Annatto
Annatto is also used to make dyes for textiles and cosmetics.
Commonly Asked Questions
Can I substitute annatto for another spice?
If you are looking for a red colouring for your dish, particularly rice, you can use saffron instead of annatto. However just note that saffron’s flavour and aroma is much stronger.