Often associated with Mexican cooking, achiote has a reddish-brown color that can turn any dish into a feast for the eyes
The vibrant, reddish-brown color of achiote turns any number of dishes into a feast for the eyes. It gives cochinita pibil its visual wow factor, and is the secret ingredient behind every irresistible spit of al pastor. With origins that reportedly date back a few millennia, achiote can now be found in various forms ranging from dried seeds to fragrant pastes. With the help of a little achiote, you can dye grilled fish a beautiful ruby red or add a splash of color to a pot of rice. And while achiote is often associated with Mexican cooking, it can be found in various cuisines across the globe. Earthy, tangy, and wonderfully colorful, it’s an ingredient that belongs in the spotlight.
So what is achiote, anyways?
Achiote has a few names, which vary depending on where you are in the world. The word comes from achiotl in Nahuatl, the ancient Aztec language, but the ingredient is also known as roucou in Trinidad and Tobago, achuete in the Philippines, bija in the Dominican Republic, and, on a more global scale, as the annatto seed.
The seeds that give us achiote paste and other annatto-based products come from pods that grow on a perennial shrub known as the annatto tree, or Bixa orellana. These red, heart-shaped capsules grow in clusters and can range from 1 to 3 centimeters in diameter. Their most defining features are the soft, fine bristles that grow all around their exterior layer, making them look like fuzzy strawberries from a distance.
“Achiote looks like a rambutan or lychee,” says Regina Escalante Bush, chef and co-owner of Merci in Mérida, Yucatán. “It’s a hairy fruit that is green [before ripening]. When you cut into it, you see a lot of little red granules that are wrapped in a white membrane. If you pop them, they paint everything bright orange and deep red.”
As the pods mature, their green color darkens to a brownish-red hue and they eventually crack open to reveal their fully developed seeds. A pod can produce up to 50 pyramid-shaped seeds, but the fruit itself is inedible.
The flesh surrounding the harvested seeds is rich in carotenoids, the naturally occurring pigments that give the seeds their signature coloring. Once they’re harvested, annatto seeds can be steeped in hot water to break up their fleshy pulp and transform them into natural dyes for textiles and cosmetics, as well as foods like cheeses, sweets, and cured meats. Annatto seeds are also commonly dried and ground into spice blends and condiments like achiote paste.
Where does achiote grow?
The achiote tree grows in tropical countries, with about 60 percent of average annual production coming from Latin America alone. Peru is the world’s largest producer, followed by Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, Jamaica, and other countries throughout the Americas, Asia, and Africa.
“There is only one species of achiote, but depending on the region and conditions where it’s grown, its color, water content, and size will vary,” says Delfina Castillo, co-founder of Semilla De Dioses, an all-female co-op that produces and sells artisanal foods and condiments native to the Yucatán.
“Because we make our products artisanally, we have to use locally grown achiote,” Castillo adds. “On occasion, we’ve tried to grind achiote from Chiapas, but because it has a higher water content, it turns into a muddy paste that hardens. The achiote here in Yucatán is a little drier, smaller in size, and has a different flavor.”
Where did achiote originate?
Bixa orellana is believed to have originated in the Americas, but the exact location is disputed. Usual contenders include the basins of northern South America, the Yucatán Peninsula, and the Caribbean.
“From my research, achiote comes from the Caribbean,” says Alejandra Kauachi, the executive chef at Mexico Lindo Cooking, a Yucatán-based culinary center that offers traditional cooking courses throughout the Riviera Maya. “The Yucatán is part of that region, but I believe it’s from the Caribbean islands. There are also references to achiote being used in Mayan texts, way before the Spanish arrival.”
According to said texts, the Mayans are believed to have used annatto in various ways, including making ink for writing scriptures, decorative body paint, natural treatments for sunburns, insect repellent, and as a symbolic substitute for blood in sacred rituals.
Outside of Mexico, achiote was used in other pre-Hispanic civilizations. In the Lesser Antilles, the Carib Indians used annatto for body painting, much like their counterparts in Mexico and Central America. In South America, the men of Ecuador’s Tsáchila people are known to have traditionally dyed their hair orange with the annatto tree’s sap and still do so to this day. The diversity of traditions involving achiote across the Americas therefore poses the question: Did annatto originate in the pre-Hispanic civilizations of Mexico and Central America, or was it brought there?
“It’s been discussed that the Mayans had trade with other cultures throughout Central and South America, which might explain how it got here,” says Castillo. “Today, a lot of achiote is grown in Peru and we import much of it.”
While the exact details of achiote’s ancient history remain uncertain, at least one chapter of its story has been well-documented: It arrived in Southeast Asia in the 17th century when the Spanish brought the tree to the Philippines.
Which cultures use achiote in their cuisine?
“In Mexico, you say achiote, people immediately think Yucatán,” says Castillo. “It’s one of the main ingredients in our cuisine. One thinks of our most popular dish: cochinita pibíl. However, achiote is also commonly used in other regions of the country like Chiapas, Tabasco, and Veracruz.”
“Achiote is commonly used in Central Mexico as part of adobo, which is the marinade for tacos al pastor,” Kauachi adds. “It’s also found in Caribbean cuisines like Puerto Rican and Jamaican, as well as Central American foods.”
Exploring Latin American and Caribbean cuisines will surely lead to plenty of dishes seasoned with annatto. The colorful seeds are what give Puerto Rican pollo asado, Mexican adobada, Dominican pasteles en hoja, and Cuban ajiaco criollo their signature warm hues. Jamaican cuisine also uses achiote for its coloring properties, as seen in hot pepper shrimp and saltfish fritters. In Vietnamese and Chinese cooking, annatto oil is used to stain various meat dishes, particularly ones featuring pork. And then there are Philippine palabok noodles, which get coated in a savory orange sauce that’s colored by “achuete.”
Do you make achiote products, or do they come pre-made?
Achiote products can be made at home or purchased at the store. One of the most common methods for preparing achiote is turning it into an aromatic paste.
“In Yucatán, we break up achiote seeds in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle with other ingredients,” explains Merci’s Bush. “Traditionally, you add between five to eight ingredients, from oregano to black pepper, bay leaves, or cinnamon. The final product is called recado rojo.”
Recados, which get their name from the Spanish word recaudar (to collect or gather), play a significant role in Yucatecan, Oaxacan, and Belizean cuisines. There are four types of traditional recados in Yucatecan cooking: black, green, escabeche, and rojo, which gets its name from achiote’s prominent color.
“Recados are broken down with acid, usually citrus like naranja agria (bitter orange) to bring tartness and sweetness to the mix. It’s then used to marinade fish, chicken, pork, turkey, or whatever you’d like” says Bush.
If you’re looking to buy premade recado rojo at the store, you’ll likely find it labeled as “achiote paste” in the Latin American foods section. Other achiote products typically found at the grocery store include annatto oil, which is commonly used in Asian cuisines; achiote spice blends; and achiotina, a fat-based product for frying (which can include pork lard or vegetable shortening, depending on the brand or personal preference). Their flavor profiles can vary depending on the other spices and herbs that are used in the recipe.
“Making [achiote paste] at home on the spot is always going to be better and pack more flavor,” says Kauachi. “If you make a paste too far in advance, the recado will oxidize and lose its color and aromatic properties. I’m also just not a very big fan of anything premade.”
It should also be noted that achiote is frequently adulterated, even in places where it’s commonly grown.
“There is a noticeable difference between homemade and store-bought,” adds Castillo. “Unfortunately, the products we are buying at the store have food coloring and flour added for volume and to cut costs. You can also spot a difference in the texture, since store-bought is usually tougher to the touch.”
What does achiote taste like?
Many would argue that achiote is prized solely for its vibrant coloring since its flavor profile is far more subdued. But some discernible notes do pop up when achiote is at its freshest.
“The flavor is very particular. It’s a deep, bitter, peppery flavor. When it’s activated by sour agents, like bitter orange or vinegar, it releases its full profile,” Kauachi explains.
“When we get the achiote in our shop, there is a peculiar aroma,” says Castillo. “It’s very strong, but I can’t describe it other than the bitterness of coffee or earth. It smells like the land and the ranch it comes from.”
Are there substitutes for achiote?
Yes and no. While other foods like saffron, harissa, or spice blends with cumin and paprika can help you achieve a similar color, they won’t provide the same subtle, earthy flavor as achiote. If you’re trying to find a substitute for achiote, consider how it may alter the balance of flavors in your dish.
How do you cook with annatto seeds?
Dried annatto seeds are very tough. Simply tossing them into a bubbling pot will not break them down effectively — you’ll risk getting a very unpleasant crunch. Instead, it’s best to thoroughly grind annatto seeds in a mortar and pestle, spice mill, or blender when making pastes and spice rubs.
On the other hand, whole annatto seeds work very well in annatto oils, infused broths, and water-based dyes. Gently heating the seeds in a neutral oil or other liquid before letting them steep will extract the achiote’s natural coloring, which can then be used to add some vibrancy to a dish. And as previously mentioned, annatto seeds can also infuse their color into solid fats, like lard, as they do in Yucatecan mucbipollo.
“On the Day of the Dead, we traditionally make mucbipollo, which is a tamal colored with achiote,” says Bush. “We heat up the achiote seeds in pork lard and mix the manteca into the masa to give it a distinctive orange color.”
How do I store achiote?
Like any other dried good, dried annatto seeds can be stored in the pantry. However, preserving achiote pastes can be trickier depending on the other ingredients they contain. Store-bought achiote paste will likely come with preservatives to prolong its shelf life, but those that contain flour pose a heightened risk for spoiling.
“Homemade achiote paste that doesn’t contain flour will last longer,” explains Castillo. “Flour makes it easier for mold to grow and hardens more quickly. Traditionally, we don’t refrigerate it either.”
“I’ve stored achiote paste for a long time because there aren’t many things that spoil in a recado,” says Kauachi. “But if I want to ensure I preserve all the aroma and freshness, I would put my paste in a sealed jar or vacuum-sealed pack.”
If you’re interested in exploring the world of recados or adding a burst of color to your dishes with achiote, here are some recipes to get you started.
Diana Kennedy and Maricel E. Presilla’s Cochinita Pibil
Kaitlin Leung’s Bo Kho
Pati Jinich’s Tikin Xic
Neyssa Jump’s Puerto Rican Pollo al Horno
Tía Clara’s Pasteles en Hoja
Bebs Manaloto-Lott’s Pancit Palabok
Octavio Hernandez Morales’s Mucbipollo
Gabriela Cámara’s Tacos al Pastor
Jillian Atkinson’s Jamaican Pepper Shrimp
Chelsie Kenyon’s Achiote Paste
Sylvio Martins is a freelance writer and actor based in Los Angeles.
Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.