Tuesday, October 30, 2012

All About Achiote

Okay, I bent the rules again. But how could I not, given this bizarre tree? It reminds me of a plant inspired by the Little Shop of Horrors. Though the fruit itself is not used, the seeds inside the spiky pods make a popular spice and coloring known as achiote.

Origin of Achiote
Achiote’s origin is the tropics of the Americas. Yucatans and Oaxacans have been using the spice as an integral part of their cuisine for centuries. The main producers of achiote today are Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia Ecuador and India. They're also cultivated in parts of Africa.

Availability of Lipstick Trees in India
Achiote grows in the warmer, drier parts of India. Banajata.org lists Karnataka, Orissa, Assam, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu as regions that grow annatto.

Lipstick trees flower from August to November, though the fruit takes approximately three to four months to mature and dry. Harvesting season for the dried seeds occurs around January.

Where to find Achiote in India
Any store selling spices is a good option for finding achiote. The seeds are sold in a couple of different forms: as whole seeds, powdered, in “bricks” mixed with cornstarch, or mixed with other spices as a paste.

Taste of Achiote
Achiote is earthy and bitter, but delicate, mild and not overpowering. The spice contains subtle musky, peppery and slightly sweet notes. Its floral scent possesses hints of peppermint. The seeds are also surrounded by edible, sweet flesh reminiscent of pepper and nutmeg.

Note: Achiote paste is mixed with other spices (described below) and may not be an accurate representation of the seed’s standalone taste.

Nutritional Value of Achiote
I’m only able to find the nutritional value of achiote bricks, as displayed on Del Mayab’s website. These bricks contain corn starch, so it is unfortunately not the nutrition information of just achiote:

Per 25g, achiote contains the following:

No fat
No cholesterol
560mg Sodium (1% RDI)
11g Carb
2g Fiber
1mg Sugar
4% Vitamin C
4% Iron

Health Benefits of Achiote
Achiote, like several herbs and spices, has a number of health benefits and therapeutic uses.

Traditionally, Bixa orellana has been used for sunstroke and other burns, leprosy, rectal problems, sleep apnea, and headaches. In traditional medicine the plant is regarded as an antibacterial, vermifuge, antiparasitic, liver and DNA protector, and has the potential to lower blood pressure. The sap is antifungal and stabilizes blood sugar in type II diabetes sufferers.

Scientific tests affirm many of these traditional uses.
--A 2012 study from Tamil Nadu published in the “Asia Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine” showed significant liver protection in acetaminophen induced hepatic damaged rats.
--The leaves of lipstick tree have anti-inflammatory properties, as demonstrated in a study conducted in Malaysia and published in “Medical Principles and Practices.”
--Scientists in Cuba published a study indicating that the tree’s extracts had antiparasite activity against Leishmania amazonensis when tested in rats.
--A 2011 study published in the “Experimental and Toxicologic Pathology” indicates annatto prevents oxidative damage caused by some chemotherapy drugs.
--A 2008 study published in “Methods and Findings in Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology” affirm the plant’s traditional use as a blood sugar stabilizer when tested in dogs. Thus, achiote holds promise for those with type II diabetes.
--The “Journal of Ethnopharmacology” published results indicating that leaf extracts are an anticonvulsant and analgesic. Furthermore, leaves showed antimicrobial and antidiarrheal activities.

How to Open/Cut Lipstick Tree Pods:
Achiote goes from being whitish yellow to a bright red color when ready for harvest. The seeds will rattle inside the pods when ready. As the pods darken into a brownish purple color, they open and consequently, the seeds fall to the ground. Thus, pick the pods before they reach the purplish-brown phase.

Open ripe red, dry pods by beating them with a stick or gently pounding with a hammer. Enjoy the peppery, nutmeg-like flesh surrounding the seeds, and then set the seeds aside for sun drying.

Use caution when handling achiote, as it will stain clothes and skin quite easily.

Purchasing and Storage:
If buying whole seeds, look for ones still retaining their bright orange and red color. Avoid brown seeds, as this indicates they have expired and will not be as flavorful.

Keep seeds and achiote powder in an airtight container (ideally glass) out of direct heat and sunlight. The seeds and powder will keep for three years. If buying infused oil, store in a glass container: Its shelf life is thee months.

Read achiote paste labels carefully: some products contain monosodium glutamate (known as MSG), a flavor enhancer that causes headaches, weakness, nausea and other health problems in some consumers. Some companies also add artificial preservatives to prevent spoilage.

Recipe Ideas and Uses:
--Use achiote to color biryani as a cheaper alternative to saffron
--Make achiote paste by combining powdered achiote with coriander, oregano, cumin, peppercorn, clove, garlic, orange juice, and vinegar
--Use this powder as a marinade or rub on tofu, seitan or even vegetable skewers
--Do like the ancient Aztecs did and add achiote powder to hot chocolate: the color will deepen and the chocolate’s earthiness will be accentuated
--Place the seeds in oil overnight to make an oil infusion

Achiote is a common food coloring and dye. In fact, its pigment classification in Europe is E160b. Annatto is found in a number of seemingly-random products such as bread, popcorn, butter, sunscreen, cosmetics, fabrics, insect repellant, cookies and crackers. If the label reads, “colored with annatto,” picture the lipstick tree.

Note: few notice much of a difference in the food’s taste as a result of adding achiote. Its subtlety and unassuming taste is partly why it’s such a popular color additive to juices and chocolate.

Vegan achiote beans from

Flavor Complements:
Tomato, onion, chipotle, bell pepper, vinegar, cumin, paprika, oregano, garlic, tabasco, turmeric, barbeque sauce, cinnamon, coconut milk, chocolate, vanilla, orange, tangerine, lime

Random Facts:
Chocolate was a big deal in the Mexican culture. Even today, rural Mexican women pride themselves on their ability to make a good cup of hot chocolate with foam on top. The secret to a bright red, “cardinal”-colored whip? None other than achiote.

Scientific Name:
Bixa orellana

Other Names:
Pimentao doce
Sinduriya (Indian)
Latkan (Indian)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks much for good information. I have actually seen cow herders gather these fruits to be given to cattle. Any information on this?