Annato seeds, known in Mexico as achiote, come from a tree thought to have originated in tropical South America. They have been used for many centuries by people in Central and South America and the Caribbean to give a yellowish or bright red color to human skin (as in body paint), cloth, and edibles.
Achiote is important in the regional cuisines of southeast Mexico (mainly in the states of Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, Chiapas, Quintana Roo; also in Oaxaca and Veracruz), though the mild-flavored condiment is known throughout the country due to the widespread distribution of commercially-prepared achiote paste. Plenty of delicious traditional dishes and ingredients contain achiote: cochinita pibil, chorizos and longanizas, tacos al pastor, and many others.
Blocks of achiote paste can be easily found at Hispanic grocery stores or in the international aisle of large supermarkets in the United States. These need to be diluted with water or broth in order to be used for cooking; follow the instructions on the package or in the recipe you are using.
If you’d prefer to make your own achiote past, it´s not at all difficult. Follow the instructions below to make a delicious and beautiful ingredient to use in any number of Mexican recipes.
Did you know?
- The word achiote comes from the Nahuatl word axiotl, meaning red tincture or red dye.
- Achiote seeds were sacred to the ancient Maya, who used them much more for ritual purposes than as a foodstuff. Their red color suggested blood. Mayas combined achiote with cacao to make a ritual drink and with other seeds for ceremonial mixes.
- In the 16th Century, annatto was used as a dye in the painting of Mexican manuscripts (codices).
- In addition to Latin American and Caribbean cuisines, annatto seeds are used in Jamaican and Filipino cooking and as a coloring agent for cheeses and other foods in Europe and the United States.
- In additon to achiote paste, you can make achiote oil for cooking, as well.
- 1/4 cup annato seeds
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 5 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 1/2 cup bitter orange juice OR ¼ cups regular orange juice plus ¼ cup Mexican lime juice OR or 1/3 cup white vinegar
Grind the herbs and spices—annato, coriander seeds, oregano, cumin seed, peppercorns, and cloves—in a spice mill or with a mortar and pestle. (You can also use a coffee-grinder to do this, but as it will leave the seasoning flavor behind, make sure you do not plan to use the grinder for coffee again.)
Place the ground spices and the salt, the garlic, and the bitter orange juice in a blender and process until it is smooth.
Store your achiote paste in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Use as instructed by your recipe.
To use as a general meat marinade: Rub the mixture onto chicken, pork or fish and let it marinate for 4-6 hours. Cook or grill as usual.
Edited by Robin Grose