Do you remember the last time you ate annatto? Whether we know it or not, most of us have had annatto (Bixa orellano), or achiote as it is known in Spanish. The seeds of the plant are a common coloring agent in foods, giving a stronger yellow appearance to butter and a yellow-orange color to cheddar cheese. In Mexican and other Latin American cuisines it is used to impart that color to rice, fish, chicken, and stews.
The Aztecs called this plant achiotl, while the Mayans called it ku-xub. The dried ground seeds were used as a coloring agent. The fresh red fruits were used as a dye for fabric and body paint, giving it one of its other common names: lipstick tree. The Mayans considered the plant to be protective and put it around sleeping hammocks to ward off disease. The leaves were used internally to treat dysentery and topically for skin conditions similar to erysipelas. The pulp was used to treat hemorrhoids. Today the leaf is a common topical home remedy for insect bites, sores, rashes, and burns, as well as insect repellent. It has astringent and soothing properties.
In cooking it is the tiny rust-red seeds that are used. Their flavor is earthy, slightly bitter, and slightly peppery, but annatto is primarily used to impart its signature color. Finely ground seeds can be used directly or the seeds can be cooked in oil (1 part seed to 4-8 parts oil) and strained out, using the oil to cook with. The seeds are quite hard, so a spice mill is helpful. Commercially, achiote pastes are also available.
Here is a popular way to use annatto:
2 T annatto seeds
1 T peppercorns (black or multi-colored)
1 T coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
8 whole cloves
To this blend add:
1 T Mexican oregano (or Greek oregano if the Mexican variety is not available)
2 tsp salt
6-8 cloves of garlic, minced or crushed
2-3 T juice of a Seville orange
2-3 T juice of a lime
Keep refrigerated. To use as a marinade mix some of this paste into citrus juices of your choice or into a white wine