Annatto is a natural colorant and seasoning extracted from the dried seeds of an evergreen shrub, believed to have originated in the Brazilian Amazon, and then spread and developed as a crop up North, all the way to Southern Mexico (including Tabasco.) The Maya called it Kiwi’ but the Spaniards named it achiote, from the Nahuatl word axiotl. Annatto is the most common name around the world, adopted from a Carib language, while the plant’s scientific name, Bixa orellana comes from the word bija, or biché, another name given by Carib indigenous people, and after Francisco de Orellana, a Spanish explorer of the Amazon river. In pre-Hispanic times, annatto was mostly used as a dye for food, skin, fabrics and, along with cochineal, it was also used for manuscript painting, at least up to the sixteenth century. It is also documented that the Maya added annatto to their kakaw (cacao) drinks, practice that was followed by the Aztecs in their chocolatl, or cacahuatl (cacao water), and also by the Spaniards, who brought it to Europe, and continued to sing the praises and consume their annatto-tinted chocolate way into the 17th century (Red Velvet hot chocolate, anyone?)
Spanish merchants introduced annatto to the Philippines (envelope of annatto powder from the Philippines, photo right), and from there, it quickly spread to Europe and the rest of Asia. For example, annatto has been a traditional colorant for Gloucester cheese since the 16th century; it was first added during the cold season, to simulate the natural carotene content in milk from the pasture eaten by the cows during the summer months. The trick later spread as a year-round practice, and also to other cheeses, such as Cheddar made in Scotland, and American cheese slices.
Nowadays, annatto is still used as a dye in many cosmetics, but especially as a natural food colorant. In addition to cheese, as seen on the photo at the top of the post, annatto may be found in baked goods, such as Gold Fish™ (AKA “fishy crackers”), and in Yucatan’s famous “recado rojo”, a red condiment prepared with annatto (achiote), herbs and spices, which is diluted in sour orange juice to use as a meat rub. The bright, almost radioactive, colour of annatto makes it more popular as a colorant, relative to its uses as a seasoning; however, when combined with other spices and herbs, annatto’s notes of nutmeg and pepper can become an exhilarating experience for the taste buds. The tabasqueña (from Tabasco) cuisine applies the use of annatto/achiote as a distinct condiment in many dishes, while providing an attractive orangey tint; one colourful example is the dough and filling of one of the many traditional tamales tabasqueños, called Chanchamitos:
The recipe is not complicated, but requires several steps, so I will talk about the process, step by step, in my next post.