Achiote, also known as annatto, is one of the most commonly used spices throughout the Americas. The bright orange-red seeds are commonly used – from Mexico and the Caribbean to the Amazon Rainforest – where they can add a subtle flavor and color to many regional dishes like cochinta pibil and salteñas.
Scientific data: Achiote is the most common names for a product extracted from the seeds of the evergreen Bixa orellana shrub, which originated in South America and was named after conquistador and early Amazon explorer Francisco de Orellana. The shrub, which can grow up to 30 feet in height, grows spiky red-brown pods filled with many seeds that covered in a waxy blood-red aril that is used for the powder, which is high in carotenoids, calcium, and folate. The leafs, roots, and bark of the shrub also have medicinal value.
Other common names: Annato, recado rojo, roucou, uruku, aploppas, colorau, colorífico.
Geography: Found primarily in tropical and sub-tropical regions in Central and South America, plus the Caribbean. Additionally, the Spanish brought it to India, Sri Lanka, and Africa in the seventeenth century.
To obtain the powder, the seeds are ground and can be mixed with other seeds or spices to form a paste or powder. The seeds can also be heated in oil or lard to extract the dye and flavor. When added to sauces, soups, cheeses, chicken, or pork the powder (or oil) add a subtle flavor and aroma, not to mention a yellow to reddish-orange color. They are also used as an inexpensive alternative to saffron to color and flavor rice dishes.
Achiote paste: Often sold as achiote or annatto paste, where the powder is mixed with other ingredients like salt, garlic, Mexican oregano, cumin, and allspice berries along with either vinegar or lime juice. This is quite common in Mexico’s Yucatan or Belize, where it is called recado rojo.
Sazón: A commercial spice blend sold throughout Latin American and the Caribbean, where achiote powder is mixed with cumin, coriander, salt, and garlic powder.
– In the highlands of Costa Rica, the Boruca mix achiote with pork fat and use it for all- around cooking.
– In central Ecuador, the Tsachila use achiote as a hair dye.
– In the state of Pará in the Brazilian Amazon, the Zo’e tribe uses achiote as body paint, as did the Taínos in Puerto Rico and numerous Native American groups.
Tacos al pastor: Achiote paste is sometimes (not always) used as a marinade for spit roasted pork for this style of taco filling introduced by Lebanese immigrants to Central Mexico in the 1960s.
Cochinita Pibil: A traditional Mayan dish on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, where pork is marinated in acidic citrus and achiote and then slow roasted while wrapped in a banana leaf.
Tikin-Xic: Achiote paste is rubbed on fish and then cooked in a banana leaf in this dish from the Yucatán.
Ceviche de Camarones Tropical: A dish from chef and food writer Maricel Presilla, where achiote infused olive oil adds color to ceviche.
Salteñas de Pollo: Achiote is used to color and flavor the dough of Bolivia’s empanada like pastie.
Chicken Tamales: Pujol’s Enrique Olvera uses achiote rubbed cochinita pibil to fill his tamales.