Bixa orellana, known by many names including annatto and achiote, is a key ingredient in Puerto Rican cuisine. Native to the Caribbean and tropical Central and South America, it was brought to Europe via translatlantic trade, where it was (and still is) used as a food additive--even becoming the "secret ingredient" behind food fraud. Its many names spell out its rich history, and its multitude of therapeutic uses are only just being studied and understood by the larger scientific community.
Annatto, achiote, roucou, urucum, or atsuete (among many other names) is a shrub that can grow to several meters in height, with distinctive "hairy" pods that contain seeds coated with a waxy, bright red flesh. The seeds, leaves, roots, and fruits can all be used in multiple applications, both decorative and medicinal. It is also known as the "lipstick tree," for obvious reasons. But in addition to its decorative use, it also offers sun protection, and acts as a mosquito repellant. The fibers in the bast (or inner bark) can also be used to make cordage. It is native to the Caribbean and the tropical central American region, including the Amazon. Today, it is mostly used in food, textile and cosmetic industries: according to my reading, 70% of all natural coloring agents are derived from this plant! Today, it is grown in tropical regions like Brazil, India, Indonesia, and East Africa. It's an ingredient not only in Caribbean cuisine, but in Mexico, Central and South America, as well as in Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines.
One of many cherished memories with my late grandmother is learning how to infuse achiote seeds into oil to use in rice dishes, or for pasteles at Christmastime. She showed me how to gently stir the oil as the little seeds bled out, vibrant vermillion. "Never heat the oil too much--if the achiote starts to pop, you've burned it!" Then she'd carefully strain the seeds out, pouring the oil into a coffee mug. It was one of those magical kitchen moments that entranced me as a kid--to be honest, it still does.
The only way I've ever used it, to add color to food, is part of the legacy of mixed heritage of Puerto Rico, and Latin America/the Caribbean in general: Indigenous, West African, and European. The Indigenous population clearly had a long tradition of using the seeds for their vibrant color, though there is not much archaeological evidence of using it in food (the notable example being the Mesoamerican chocolate drink). Enslaved peoples from West Africa would have been very familiar with palm oil, which has a deeper color that could be mimicked by infusing annatto into oil. Saffron was used in the Andalucian and Mediterranean culinary traditions, and in Murcia and Extremadura, cooking with pimentón (or powdered sweet red peppers) lent a reddish color to the food. Adopting an ingredient at hand, like annatto, to stand in for familiar ingredients from home is a prime example of how a hybridized cuisine is born.
In a side note about Puerto Rican annatto, I found an interesting blurb in an article from 1917 (the same year Puerto Ricans became American citizens, just in time to be sent out to fight in World War I). Because of the war, the supply of dyestuffs was limited, thereby increasing the demand for Puerto Rican annatto--by 1914, demand had shot up considerably, as did its price. Because of its wide array of uses, including dying textiles and food, it became a highly desirable commodity which lessened American reliance on European dyestuffs.
If you're interested in making your own achiote oil, Carmen Aboy Valldejuli's legendary Puerto Rican cookbook Cocina Criolla contains a recipe (here I have translated from Spanish):
“Heat 2 cups of vegetable oil over high heat. Add 1 cup of achiote grains, reduce heat to low, and stir occasionally for 5 minutes. Let cool completely, strain with the aid of a colander lined with paper towel, and store in a crystal container, covered.” (p.7)
Use it in any dish that calls for vegetable oil, to which you'd like to add an extra dose of color and (very mild) flavor. Why not try your hand at making Puerto Rican arroz con gandules, or Filipino tamales? If you do make achiote oil, know that it will stain any porous surface (like wooden spoons or your clothes). Store tightly covered in the fridge and use within a couple months.
What's in a name? In the case of annatto, a lot. First, let's look at its scientific designation: Bixa orellana.
Bixa, or bija, is of Arawak/Taíno (Indigenous Caribbean) origin. Bixa is also the origin of the name of the carotene pigment found in its seeds, bixin. 19th century writer Emiliano Tejera compiled a collection of words of Indigenous origin in the Dominican Republic, based on texts from those Europeans who kept written accounts of Spanish involvement in its colonies (such as Bartolomé de las Casas and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés).
Under "Bija (Bixa)", it is noted that the seed was used in the Caribbean islands and Tierra Firme (the Spanish term for its territory along the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico--what today includes Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, and Guyana). The seeds were (and still are) used for body paint. Bixa would be applied when going to war, as it has the appearance of blood, and any injuries sustained in battle would not be as visible. It was/is also used during ceremonial or religious song and dance gatherings, referred to as areytos among Taíno.
As for the orellana part of Bixa orellana, it comes from the name of the first conquistador to navigate the Amazon River, Francisco Orellana. (Just in case you forgot who gets to be immortalized in the history books.)
Achiote, the name I'm used to calling it in Spanish, is from the Nahuatl word āchiotl. Annatto also seems to be of Indigenous origin, perhaps from Carib. Annatto is known as urucum in Brazil, urucu in Bolivia and Argentina, roucou in Trinidad, Suriname, and the French Antilles. These are all variations from the Tupi word ru-ku, or "red."
Before the arrival of Europeans, there had been a long history of trade amongst Indigenous groups such as the Arawak (Caribbean and northern South America), Guaycuru, and Guarani (Northern South America). The oldest archaeological evidence of annatto comes from a site in Saba, a Caribbean island east of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, dating to about 3,700 years ago--another site in lowland Bolivia is about 2,400 years old. Using archaeological evidence, as well as by studying the family tree of various annatto hybrids, the story of the plant becomes a bit clearer. The working theory is that, via trade, the plant spread from the Caribbean throughout the Amazon and beyond, where it then hybridized into several varieties.
In Mesoamerica, powdered annatto was added to chocolate drinks, but this is the only example of annatto as a food additive that I was able to find.
By the time the Europeans arrived, annatto quickly became a commodity to trade and export back to Europe--you know, the classic story of stealing the spoils of the land after military intervention. (If you've been reading my newsletter for a while, you know how frequently the story involves the ripple effect of European colonization...) To make the story even richer, by the 17th century, annatto was being used in chocolate recipes in Europe--gee, I wonder where they got that idea?
Around the same time, cheesemakers in England got on the annatto bandwagon, using it to increase their profits. Dairy products made in summer typically have a brighter, richer yellow color, thanks to the beta carotene in the grass the cows graze on. Cheesemakers found that they could make extra cash by literally skimming off the top: they removed the cream from the milk, which could either be sold on its own, or turned into butter. The remaining milk would then be made into cheese, but because of the lower cream content, the resulting cheese was paler in color. Adding colorants like annatto achieved a deeper yellow color, thereby giving unsuspecting customers the illusion that they were getting full-fat cheese. I imagine there was way more food fraud of this sort than what was documented... if it's that easy to get away with, I could certainly imagine that that extra cash would be hard to pass up.
Apparently, it wasn't always a technique used to squeeze out extra income, but instead to ensure an even, appealing color in the final product. Annatto was--and still is--the preferred additive because it is strongly colored, and does not alter the taste of the final product. Other alternatives included saffron (which was stupidly expensive), marigold (which gave an "off" taste), or strained carrot pulp.
For those of you less familiar with American cheeses, don't feel left out: if you've munched on Edam or Gouda cheeses (really, anything with a golden-orange tint to it), then you've eaten annatto. The technique of adding annatto to richen the color of cream before making butter or cheese was not limited to England, but also used by Dutch, Swiss, and German cheesemakers.
When the English found their way to what is now the United States, they took this technique with them--hence, why cheeses like Wisconsin and New York cheddars have that characteristic bright color, even to this day. Curiously, though, for some reason it didn't take hold in New England--dairy farms shied away from using annatto, which is why Vermont cheddar tends to be paler in color.
Food adulteration is clearly not a new phenomenon. As long as people have stood to gain profit from stretching food ingredients beyond their natural limits, there have been unscrupulous people willing to do so, whatever the consequences to the consumer. In the grand scheme of things, using a non-toxic food additive like annatto to make a bit of extra cash is much more inocuous than other more malicious and dangerous schemes, like adding plaster of Paris or alum to bread, formaldehyde to milk, or textile dye to baby formula.
We mostly focus on the colorant this plant provides, but traditional (or ethnomedical) uses for annatto are numerous, and scientific studies on its healing properties have only just begun in recent years. The seeds have been utilized as an expectorant, laxative, anti-inflammatory (used to treat bruises), and to heal wounds. Infusions with the leaves have been used to treat inflammation of the eyes and bronchitis, lower fevers, and to stave off nausea in pregnant women. (This is just a tiny fraction of the noted uses of this plant... for more, read this study!)
Traditional uses for this plant overlap in studies of multiple societies throughout Central and South America, but formal scientific study on these uses is incomplete. (I wouldn't be surprised if, a few years from now, annatto got picked up as the next new "miracle plant" that gets sensationalized on morning television, and makes people go gaga.)
As for using annatto as a natural dye, besides the obvious cosmetic and food applications, it is being studied for use in dye sensitized solar cells--yup, that's right, as in renewable energy. It's an inexpensive, biodegradable dye that seems to show promise, according to this 2014 study.
Annatto is a valuable natural resource that we exploit, almost entirely in ways that are different from its original uses. We utter the many names of this plant with our own approximated pronunciations. It's one case of what happens when we decontextualize an ingredient, and detach it from the ancestral knowledge that guided its use. It's a classic example of the European colonizer mindset: "I like that... it's mine now!"
Context matters. It's one reason why I write this newsletter. As a Diasporican woman, I have my own atavistic connection with annatto, but being mindful of the backstory of an ingredient means I'm less likely to take it for granted.
For those of you who are interested in resources on Taíno culture and history, I highly recommend checking out Taíno Library's extensive online database of books, open to everyone for consultation.
Thanks very much for reading. If you enjoyed this month's piece, please like/comment/share to help this newsletter grow.
If you would like to support my efforts financially, you may consider becoming a Paid Subscriber. Paid subscribers receive bonus content like original art and one bonus narrated essay per month, which I call TIDBITS. I also accept one-off donations via my website.
Be well, take care of your heart, and I'll see you next month.
“ANNATTO IN PORTO RICO.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 65, no. 3348, 1917, pp. 172–172. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41347186.
Aubrey, Allison. "How 17th Century Fraud Gave Rise To Bright Orange Cheese." NPR, 8 November 2013.
Bramen, Lisa. "What the Heck Do I Do with Annatto?" SMITHSONIANMAG.COM, 13 April 2011.
Davidson, Alan. Tom Jaine, ed. The Oxford Companion to Food. 3rd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 23.
Gallagher, Maree, and Ian Thomas. “Food Fraud: The Deliberate Adulteration and Misdescription of Foodstuffs.” European Food and Feed Law Review, vol. 5, no. 6, 2010, pp. 347–353. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24325040.
McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribner, 2004. p. 34, 393, 423-3.
Moreira, Priscila Ambrósio, et al. “The Domestication of Annatto (Bixa Orellana) from Bixa Urucurana in Amazonia.” Economic Botany, vol. 69, no. 2, 2015, pp. 127–135., www.jstor.org/stable/24825901.
Ortíz Cuadra, Cruz M. Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity. Translated by Russ Davidson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. p. 62, 261.
Shahid-Ul-Islam et al. “Phytochemistry, biological activities and potential of annatto in natural colorant production for industrial applications - A review.” Journal of advanced research vol. 7,3 (2016): 499-514. doi:10.1016/j.jare.2015.11.002
Tejera, Emiliano. "Palabras Indigenas de la Isla de Santo Domingo." p. 68-9.
University of Southampton, and Long, James. “British Dairy-Farming to Which Is Added a Description of the Chief Continental Systems.” London : Chapman and Hall, 1885. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/10.2307/community.29932935.
Valldejuli, Carmen Aboy. Cocina Criolla (Nueva Edición Revisada). Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, 2019. p. 7.
Vilar, Daniela de Araújo et al. “Traditional uses, chemical constituents, and biological activities of Bixa orellana L.: a review.” TheScientificWorldJournal vol. 2014 (2014): 857292. doi:10.1155/2014/857292