Annatto seeds are pyramid-shaped, measuring approximately 5 mm in length, and are encased in black-brown, hairy seed pods that grow in tight clusters. Each pod holds 8 to 10 seeds, and the seed’s brick red, waxy shell surrounds a dark brown paste-like center with an oily sheen. When handled, the seeds excrete a red-orange oily residue that easily dyes hands and surfaces. Annatto seeds are extremely hard, making it difficult to cut and grind the seeds. The seeds bear a musty aroma with a peppermint finish, developing a nose-tingling sensation when inhaled deeply. Annatto seeds have a mild, smokey, and peppery citrus flavor with subtle complexities of peppermint, chocolate, and nutmeg that linger on the palate. is an orange-red food coloring or condiment made from the seeds of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana), which grows in tropical and semi-tropical regions. Annatto is used as a condiment to enhance the flavor of dishes due to its slightly sweet and peppery taste.
Annatto seeds are harvested from spike-covered, heart-shaped fruit of the Bixa orellana shrub. As the fruit of the Bixa shrub matures, the pods can be easily split open to harvest the seeds inside. The Bixa orellana shrub is also known as the lipstick tree due to the shape of the seed pods and the seed’s use as a dye for cosmetics. Annatto seeds are commonly known as Achiote in Mexican and Latin markets and as Atsuwete or Achuete in Asian markets. While Annatto seeds are popular in Latin, Caribbean, and Asian cuisine, Annatto seeds are also the world’s most widely used food colorant, gaining immense popularity in the 1980s as countries like Japan outlawed the use of synthetic dyes in food products.
Annatto seeds are most commonly used as a food coloring for butter, margarine, and cheeses like cheddar, edam, and muenster. Annatto seeds are also the main component in Achiote paste, a mixture of the seeds with aromatics, including cumin and coriander, and citrus juice or vinegar. Achiote pastes are popular in Latin and Caribbean cuisine and are incorporated into marinades and sauces for added flavoring. Annatto seeds can also be steeped in hot oil or lard to create manteca de Achiote, an infused, bright orange oil that contains subtle flavors of the seed. In Asia, the seeds are common in many Filipino dishes, and the Vietnamese incorporate the seeds into bun bo hue, a soup infused with Annatto seeds to impart an umami flavor. Annatto seeds pair well with rice, poultry, and fish and complement the flavors of onions and bay leaves, making them ideal for slow-braised meats, soups, and stews. Whole Annatto seeds can be stored in an air-tight container in a dry, dark place for up to three years. Annatto seed paste can be kept up to three months when stored in the refrigerator.
The cultural significance of Annatto seeds can be traced back to the Mayan, Incan, and Aztec Empires, where the plant and seeds were viewed as sacred. These ancient civilizations used Annatto seeds as body paint, food coloring, dye, and ink. In rituals within Mayan and Aztec cultures, Annatto seeds were used to turn xocalatl, a chocolate drink, dark red to symbolize a blood offering to the gods. Legend says the Tsachila tribe in Ecuador began covering their skin with paste from the Annatto seeds after the tribal leader received a vision from the gods saying the fruit of the Achiote tree would ward off deadly European diseases brought by the Spanish invaders in the 18th century. This practice led to the tribe’s nickname ‘Colorado,’ meaning ‘reddish colored,’ and the seed is still used today by the men of the tribe to dye their hair red.