All About Achiote

Dust Cutter serves their achiote shrimp and lobster roll.
Dust Cutter serves their achiote shrimp and lobster roll. Jacob Tyler Dunn

Here in the Southwest, chances are pretty good that everyone's had their fair share of Mexican food. But as much as we all love to eat the stuff, how much do we really know about the flavors that we're so helplessly addicted to? Unless you grew up with a Mexican grandmother (don't we wish) or have seriously studied Mexican cuisine (like Erica O'Neil, our Chow Bella contributor who kindly pens Taco the Town each week), you might not know much beyond rice + beans + tortilla + tasty meat = yummy Mexican food.

This week, Mexican cuisine is the prime focus for Spice Girl, our latest series discussing all things spicy: how spices are used, where to find them, plus a sprinkling of culture and history. This week we're taking a long hard look at achiote, also called annatto. These rusty red seeds are made into an extract that is often used as coloring for items like butter and cheddar cheese, but achiote can provide much more than its signature color.

No matter how much or how little you know about Mexican culinary practices, you probably remember eating a bright red sauce with some varieties of tamales and enchiladas. That red color typically comes from tomatoes and chilies, but in Oaxaca and Yucatan, achiote paste (a.k.a. recado rojo) is often included as well, making the sauce extra bright. Although achiote seeds don't pack a ton of flavor, they provide a distinctive peppery and nutty note with a little sweetness, which can lend an extra depth to sauces.

Because achiote is used more regionally in Mexico, it isn't always found in Phoenix restaurants, which lean toward the Sonoran style. However, we have some favorite ways to get a taste here in town. La Condesa Gourmet Taco Shop uses the spice in Cochinita Pibil, a Yucatan dish of slow-roasted pork. They serve it as either a corn quesa or a burro topped with lime-marinated onions. A similar pork is served up in the Pork Taco Trio from Canteen Modern Tequila. For a different taste of achiote, local favorite Barrio Café uses it in Mojarra de San Agustin, tilapia grilled in a banana leaf.

To make some achiote-seasoned pork home, Chef Alex Padilla, previously of Taberna Mexicana (now closed), has been kind enough to share his recipe. If you're looking to use achiote in your own kitchen, it can be found at Mexican grocers like La Tolteca. They carry both the seeds, which will need to be ground, and the powder, which is ready-to-use. La Tolteca also carries some convenient ready-made blends for Mexican cooking, although they don't have any prepared achiote paste, which includes other spices like coriander, cumin, and oregano as well as vinegar or bitter orange juice. Never fear; it's easy to make your own to be used as part of a sauce or as a marinade. The recipe from Herbs and Spices: The Cook's Reference can be found here.

Achiote makes its way into a lot of dishes. It's used in Oaxacan-style mole sauce, and in Puerto Rican cuisine, a lard compound called achiotina is used for cooking everything from bean and rice dishes to vegetables, meats, and stews. The achiote tree is also native to some tropical regions in South Asia, so the spice makes the occasional appearance in Indian cuisine.

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Dominique Chatterjee