What we call atsuwete (achuete, achiote) is annatto (Bixa orellana)–a natural red food coloring. In Philippine cuisine, it is commonly associated with sotanghon guisado and kare-kare. Although atsuwete has a distinct, but mild, flavor and aroma, it is not really used as a spice in Filipino cooking but only as food coloring. Despite the redness of the seeds, the resulting color of the food to which annatto seeds or their extract have been added is actually yellow to yellow-orange.
The mature atsuwete (achiote) tree is eight to ten feet high on the average. The seeds are contained in round pods. The green pods turn red when mature and ready for picking.
In the West it used to colour confectionery, butter, smoked fish and cheeses like Cheshire, Leicester, Edam and Muenster. As an effective natural colouring it is also used in cosmetics and textile manufacturing. It provides a bright and exotic appearance for many kinds of dishes. Yeats wrote ÒGood arnotto is the colour of fireÓ (Natural History, 1870). The Mayan Indians of Central America used the bright dye as war paint. [The Epicentre]
So, how does one use the seeds for food color? The small seeds are usually soaked in hot water until they render their color. The water is then used to add a reddish tinge to the meat, broth, noodles or sauce. Personally, I prefer to “fry” them in oil over low temperature. They render more color that way. I just strain the oil before sauteeing.
To make annatto / achiote oil, pour the amount of oil you need into a frying pan. Set the heat to the lowest temperature. Add the annatto seeds making sure that they are spread evenly so that every bit touches the oil. Leave the seeds there for several minutes, stirring occasionally, until they have rendered their color into the oil.
Now, how to control the hue of the annatto / achiote oil. The less annatto seeds you use, the lighter the color of the oil. Yellowish. As you use more annatto seeds for the same amount of oil, the color deepens to yellow-orange to orange-yellow.
Updated on May 1, 2012.