Annatto / Achiote

The crimson pigments and sharply perfumed, earthy flavors of annatto emerge from the pulp that surrounds the seeds, which are secreted in spiny, scarlet heart-shaped pods. The pods grow in clusters that stand out above the broadly fingered leaves of this widely distributed tropical shrub or small tree (Bixa orellana). The seeds are best known by two names, annatto, from indigenous Caribbean languages, and achiote, from the Uto-Aztecan language family, with the latter derived from the Nahuatl term achiotl. The plant, also known as annatto, is believed to have originated in the lowlands of South America and then, perhaps with the aid of early cultivators, spread northward to the Yucatán Peninsula and the West Indies.

Currently surpassing saffron, turmeric, and paprika as the world’s most widely used food colorant, annatto seeds, when soaked in water, deliver both yellow-orange and bright red pigments. The seeds are also used for achiote paste, which originated in the Yucatán and is made by grinding the seeds with other spices and flavorings. For Manteca de achiote, a popular cooking fat in much of Latin America, the seeds are heated with oil or lard until the liquid turns a beautiful orange, then the seeds are discarded.

I first saw cultivated annatto plants in the dooryard gardens of the Ecuadorian Amazon, where the Jivario, Tsáchila, and other local tribes still plaster their hair with the brilliant dye derived from the seeds; hence the tribes’ nickname Colorado, or “reddish colored.” The Aztecs added annatto to their thick, syrupy chocolate drinks to strengthen the brilliance of their brews, and today in the Caribbean, particularly in Jamaica, it is used to flavor and color codfish cakes.

The early Spanish, Berbers, Arabs, and Jews who immigrated to the Yucatán Peninsula used yellow-orange achiote as a substitute for turmeric and saffron in their recaudos. These marinades and pastes typically combined achiote with more savory and pungent spices in vinegar or in sour orange or lime juice. The blends, influenced by the newcomers’ own culinary traditions, eventually evolved into the sauces and pastes that brighten such Mayan-adapted dishes as cochinita pibil and múkbil pollo. In Mayan villages I have visited on the Yucatán Peninsula, the crimson, pink, and green profile of the annatto tree brightens the walkways of nearly every dooryard garden, doubling as both an ornamental and a kitchen staple.

Crypto-Jewish spice merchants who helped to colonize Mexico may have been the first traders to send the seeds into the Old World spice networks, for achiote moved along the same trade routes that had long been managed by Sephardic Jews and Arabized Berbers. Traders in Martinique appear to have passed what they called annatto on from Portuguese, French, and Dutch colonies to Europe, Africa, and Asia, which is reflected in the fact that loan-word cognates of achiote are far less common in Old World languages than are cognates of annatto and bija, both derived from the Caribbean language family. Urucul, another indigenous term for annatto, may have originated in the Amazon Basin. It is likely the root of ruku, the term now used in Curaçao liqueur in mixed drinks and marinades.

 Today, annatto enjoys a pan-tropical distribution, being cultivated as far away from its natal grounds as China, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines. Once valued primarily as a hair dye, aphrodisiac, and digestive, the utility of annatto as a colorant, in everything from lipsticks, cheeses, sun screens, and red sun dresses and shawls to chewing gums, now trumps all of its other uses.

 

Resources: 
Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2006.
Hill, Tony. The Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” http://gernot-katzers-spice-paes.com/engl/index.html. Accessed May 4, 2013.
Image Credit: http://bit.ly/2diGD5r
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press