Not to be confused with any member of the chili family, annatto is a seed with a distinctive musky, earthy flavor and a bit peppery. For some, it also suggests a hint of nutmeg. Known by many names, — achiote, achuete and more, many call it “the poor man’s saffron.” It is widely used in the Caribbean and Latin America, especially Guatemala and Mexico. In the U.S., its popularity is growing rapidly. An easy way to buy it is by purchasing a spice blend called Sazon in supermarkets near Mexican foods.
Legend has it, annatto seed was first introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro y Alonso after he returned from an expedition to Peru. The natives in the region used annatto to produce a yellow-orange dye for textiles and body paint to deter evil spirits. The dye also acted as a natural bug repellant and sunscreen. Mexican artisans of the 16th century also used annatto dye to decorate manuscripts and maps during the Spanish conquest.
The Achiote shrub, from which annatto is gathered, has shiny, heart-shaped leaves, reddish veins and pink flowers. Its fruit is a pod with prickly spines. Inside is red pulp containing 50 or more annatto seeds. Seed pods are picked at full ripeness then dried in the sun. Peru is the largest producer, Brazil and Kenya follow behind.
According to Phyllis Balch, in her book “Prescription for Nutritional Healing,” annatto contains amino acids, calcium, iron and phosphorus, as well as vitamins B-2 and B-3. Read more on the health benefits of annatto.
SUGGESTED USES FOR ANNATTO:
(Note: Annatto powder is far easier to work with.)
Excellent in soups, stews, rice dishes, stir fry recipes, moles, and sauces
Coloring for cheeses and sweets
Add annatto seed to your next cup of hot chocolate, as the Aztecs did.
Make a marinade by combining oil, fresh ginger, garlic, salt and pepper.
Filipino dishes like: Ukoy, shrimp and sweet potato fritters; pipian, chicken and pork in an annatto oil sauce; and kari-kari, a brightly colored vegetable and oxtail stew
Combines well with: chile peppers, cilantro, cumin, garlic, ginger, lime, and oregano
Make an annatto paste or rub by mixing with water or vinegar, and herbs such as cinnamon, bay leaf, cilantro, salt, cloves and oregano.