A true American spice, but from South America
Recently a lady came to my shop and asked if I had achiote. I stood there looking at the hundreds of herbs and spices I had to choose from, but couldn’t think of any called achiote. My suspicion was that we had a language barrier of some sort. I had learned that many different cultures call herbs and spices by names other than the ones we use in our culture. This is a greater problem now that people are (quite rightly) experimenting in cooking foods from outside the traditional American cuisine. So after a little research I learned that, in fact, was the problem here. Achiote is what annato seeds are called in some Latin American countries. Achiote is the name given once the seeds have been ground into a powder. As it turns out, there are many names for annato seeds; here are but a few: achiote, anatta, annotta, aploppas, arnotta, arnotto, orellana, orlean, orleana. That’s a lot of names for a small red seed. As a footnote, the orlean group of names (the latin name for the plant is Bixa orellana) is a tribute to Francisco de Orellana who was a 16th Century explorer. He was the Spanish explorer who, quite by chance, discovered the Amazon River.
The ancient Aztecs were known for drinking a very rich chocolate drink. It is said that at least one Aztec king drank several gallons a day. Sadly, there is no reliable recipe that has survived to tell us what all was included in this drink of kings. But, it is believed that annato, given its bright red color that would denote blood (a strong religious symbol to the Aztecs) and given its easy availability, was probably one of the many ingredients.
Although annato is native to South America it is not the only cuisine to use it. We have to remember that Spain had a lot of influence around the world for a long time. While annato has some other culinary benefits, it is primarily used much like saffron to give food a bright yellow color. There is a whole other article in using different herbs and spices for color in different dishes. The Spanish influence led to annato’s use in South East Asia. The Filipino’s use it for soups and stews. They will also use the ground seeds to marinate meat, usually pork. Oils extracted from the annato seeds is also used in Filipino dishes, as well as, those from the Caribbean, Vietnam and even some Chinese offerings.
Here is one of life’s little food ironies. You have probably never heard of annato before reading this article. However, if you live in the Cincinnati area Montgomery Inn is a staple for ribs. There is a potato chip called Montgomery Inn Barbeque Potato Chips. One of the ingredients listed on the package is annato seeds. Here it has been ground into a powder and applied to the outside of the chip for a red color. It makes the eye see “barbeque”. The barbeque flavor is mixed in with the annato.