101 YUCATAN TREES INDEX
ANNATO - Achiote
Sometimes you see a small tree or shrub with heart-shaped leaves and bearing white, two-inch broad (5cm) flowers and/or clusters of soft-spiny, reddish-brown capsules like those shown at the right.
That's Annatto, Bixa orellanai, native to Mexico, including the Yucatan, and Central America. In Maya culture Annatto is very important because it's the source of a bright, reddish-orange paste the Maya use in many of their dishes as both coloring and flavoring. Traditional Maya dishes in which you may have seen annatto paste's red signature include Cochinita Pibil and various annatto-marinated fish plates. The recado rojo or "red broth" used in many Maya dishes is red because of annatto.
When an Annatto fruit capsule is mature -- but not too mature -- the peppercorn-like seeds inside are embedded in a red-orange paste. That's the annatto paste. When the capsule matures and starts splitting open, the paste more or less dries and covers the seeds, becoming part of the seeds' pericarp. This pericarp or even the whole seeds can then be ground to make annatto paste. You can see mature Annatto capsules filled with red, annatto-covered seeds below.