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Achiote seeds are small, triangular, rust-colored seeds produced by the annatto tree. This small tree or shrub grows primarily in the tropical forests of South America. The seeds are a common ingredient in Caribbean, Spanish, and Indian cooking.
An annatto plant has heart-shaped leaves and pink flowers. It produces fruit in the form of a pod covered with prickly spines. The pod contains about 50 seeds surrounded by a reddish pulp.
The distinctive red-colored pulp, as well as the seed's outer covering, are used in dyes to color butter and cheeses. It's also used in textiles and cosmetics. In South America, it is often used in body paint and lipstick, hence the annatto's nickname of the "lipstick tree." Achiote seeds impart a golden color during cooking, and are often called the poor man's saffron. The seeds and their derivatives can be purchased in most Asian and Hispanic markets as well as online.
There are many different products that can be purchased that are made with achiote seeds. The seeds themselves can be purchased whole or ground and used to flavor soups, stews, meats, rice, and casseroles. They have a mild peppery taste with a hint of nutmeg. These seeds are also available ground up and mixed with water or vinegar to form a paste. Achiote paste can be used as a marinade, a coating base, and a soup flavoring. Achiotina is an achiote-flavored lard that's often used for cooking beans or rice.
Many people like to fry achiote seeds in oil. When the skins of the seeds dissolve, they throw out the seeds and use the oil to flavor many Indian or Latin American dishes. They can also be boiled in water to make an infusion for adding to dishes, or can be added directly to broth or cooking water.
One of the most common uses of achiote seeds is in the traditional Mexican dish called Puerco pibil. This dish consists of pork roast marinated in citrus juice an achiote seeds. It is wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted until tender. The achiote helps tenderize and flavor the pork, plus adds a beautiful reddish-gold color to the dish. Traditionally, the Puerco pibil is served over rice or with tortillas.
In Caribbean dishes, achiote seeds are used mainly for the bright reddish-yellow color it gives to dishes. The seeds are soaked in water, and then the colored water is used to cook rice or beans or used as a base for soups and stews. Flavoring from the achiote seed is subtle, so other spices are often added.