Annatto is called the lipstick tree because its red pigment has been used as a natural dye in any number of products - including lipsticks - and because it was traditionally used in the Amazon as a cosmetic. The picture on the left is from an achiote tree we saw on a trip to Samana, Dominican Republic, and it shows the seed pods forming. The one on the right we saw at a botanical garden in Acapulco, Mexico. The pods have opened naturally, but if they had been intended for market, the pods would be harvested when still closed, lest the seeds be blown to the ground before they could be gathered.
Annatto is native to South America (most sources agree, specifically Brazil**). It's botanical name (Bixa orellana ) comes from the name of the Spanish conquistador/explorer said to have discovered it, Francisco de Orellanna . The first expedition de Orllanna accompanied originally set sail looking for "The Land of Cinnamon," a hope echoed in one of the early Spanish names given to the Amazon River - Rio de Canela (Cinnamon), as they believed they would find cinnamon trees lining its banks. De Orellanna himself returned looking for gold (one source claims his search for El Dorado "forms part of the plot of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull"). We can only speculate whether had an inkling of the economic importance he was looking at the first time he caught sight of the triangular red grains of annatto nestling inside their forbidding pods.
The seeds quickly made their way back to Europe, where English cheesemakers found it to be a boon. In some high quality cheeses (produced mostly in the summer, when cows are grazing on grasses containing higher amounts of vitamin D), a natural orange color develops. Cheesemakers discovered that dying the cheeses with annatto gave an inferior cheese a pleasing orange shade without adversely affecting the flavor.
When added to foods in larger quantities, it lends an earthy, peppery flavor to a dish. If you are buying annatto/achotie, give preference to whole seeds, as the ground powders may have been mixed with cornstarch (or other ingredients) to stretch it.
In Northern Mexico, achiote (yes, the same name as the tree) is a marinade made from a blend of annatto, Mexican oregano, cumin seeds, peppercorns, and whole allspice that has been ground finely and blended with just enough water to make a paste. You then rub this paste onto chicken, pork or beef.
Achiote Recado is a very similar spice paste that is popular in the Yucatan. It is mixed with the juice of oranges (along with either lemons or limes) to make dishes such as pureco pibil (also known as cochinita pibil). Sometimes it is made without peppers, but I prefer the version that includes a few habaneros. The dish traditionally involves roasting a whole suckling pig, but today it is made just as often with pork butt or pork shoulder. You need between 3 and 5 pounds of boneless pork, cut into cubes, along with 3 ounces of achiote paste, 3 seeded habeneros, and a cup of mixed orange and lemon juice.
To make the paste use:
5 tablespoons annatto seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
8 whole allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
3 habanero peppers, seeded
1/2 cup white vinegar
8 cloves garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
Grind the spices together in a spice grinder and transfer to a blender. Add remaining ingredients and pulse until smooth. Remember to rinse out your blender, as prolonged contact will dye the plastic parts of the blender.
You marinate the pork in the paste and juice mixture, then wrap it in banana leaves (in turn wrapped in foil) and slow roast for four hours, at around 325 degrees. The pureco pibil can be served over rice, garnished with cheese and, if you like, pickled red onions. You can also shred the meat to stuff into tacos.
In Venezulan recipes, use annatto to color the dough used for empanadas and the corn flour used in hallacas (which involve a meat and olive filling). In Spanish-speaking portions of the Caribbean, Annatto lends color to yellow rice, and makes an occasional appearance in sofritos. In the French-Speaking Caribbean, it is often used when making blaff (lime smoked fish). Annatto is also infused into lard or oil, and the resulting products used to impart color and flavor while cooking. Annatto is a popular spice in the Philippines. It is often used to spice up Filipino tamales (which are made from powdered rice instead of corn). In Filipino recipes, you will see the word atsuete, the Tagalog word for annatto.
The Spanish introduced annatto to Southeast Asia in the 17th century, where its popularity spread to the point where it became a staple in Indian cooking. You can substitute it for saffron to color byriani and other Indian dishes. In fact, Annatto is one of several plants that has gained the moniker "poor man's saffron." In Vietnam, Annatto is used in mixtures for coating fried foods, and also to add a depth of color to coconut curries. In China, it is used to deepen the color of roasted pork.
The Aztecs also added annatto to hot chocolate, to deepen the color and give it an "earthy" taste. This is still a common practice today in some parts of the world.
Aside from culinary uses, the seeds can also be soaked in hot water to make a red dye for textiles. The pulp of the fruits were traditionally used as an insect repellant and a sunscreen, and to make body paint and ink for writing. It will dye almost anything, really, including your hands and clothes, so be careful when working with it.
*NOTE: While annatto is safe for most people, some do experience allergic reactions.
**NOTE: Some sources claim it is also native to the Caribbean. The spice is known as roucou in Trinidad and Tobago, achuete by Filipinos, and urucul by the Tupi-Guarani Indians of the Amazon region. In India, there are a number of names for this spice: Sinduri (Sanskrit), Sinduriya, Latkan (Hindi), Rangmale (Kannada), Sappira virai, Uragumanjal (Tamil).