Thursday, 9 November 2017

ALL ABOUT ANNATTO

“Red is the ultimate cure for sadness.” - Bill Blass  

Annatto is an orange-red condiment and food colouring derived from the seeds of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana). It is often used to impart a yellow or orange colour to foods, but sometimes also for its flavour and aroma. Its scent is described as “slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg” and flavour as “slightly nutty, sweet and peppery”. The colour of annatto comes from various carotenoid pigments, mainly bixin and norbixin, found in the reddish waxy coating of the seeds.

The condiment is typically prepared by grinding the seeds to a powder or paste. Similar effects can be obtained by extracting some of the colour and flavour principles from the seeds with hot water, oil, or lard, which are then added to the food. Annatto and its extracts are now widely used in an artisanal or industrial scale as a colouring agent in many processed food products, such as cheeses, dairy spreads, butter and margarine, custards, cakes and other baked goods, potatoes, snack foods, breakfast cereals, smoked fish, sausages, and more.

In these uses, annatto is a natural alternative to synthetic food colouring compounds, but it has been linked to cases of food-related allergies. Annatto is of particular commercial value in the United States because the Food and Drug Administration considers colourants derived from it to be “exempt of certification”. 

Achiote or the annato tree (Bixa orellana) is a shrub or small tree originating from the tropical region of the Americas. It is 6–10 m high and bears clusters of 5 cm diameter bright white to pink flowers, resembling single wild roses, appearing at the tips of the branches. The fruits are in clusters: Spiky-looking red-brown seed pods covered in soft spines. Each pod contains many seeds covered with a thin waxy blood-red aril. When fully mature, the pod dries, hardens, and splits open, exposing the seeds.

North, Central, and South American natives originally used the seeds to make red body paint and lipstick, as well as a spice. For this reason, the achiote is sometimes called the lipstick tree. The species name was given by Linnaeus after the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana, an early explorer of the Amazon River. The name achiote derives from the Nahuatl word for the shrub, āchiotl [aːˈt͡ʃiot͡ɬ]. It may also be referred to as aploppas, or by its original Tupi name uruku, urucu or urucum (“red colour”), which is also used for the body paint prepared from its seeds.

The natural orange-red condiment (also called “achiote” or “bijol”) is obtained from the waxy arils that cover the seeds of the achiote tree. The ground seeds are widely used in traditional dishes in Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, such as cochinita pibil, chicken in achiote and caldo de olla. 

Bixa orellana originated in South America but it has spread to many parts of the world. It is grown easily and quickly in frost-free regions, from sub-tropical to tropical climates, and thrives if sheltered from cool winds. It prefers year-round moisture, good drainage, and moderately fertile soil in full sun or partial shade. It can be propagated from seed and cuttings. Cutting-grown plants flower at a younger age than seedlings. The main commercial producers are countries in South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, and also India and Sri Lanka, where it was introduced by the Spanish in the 17th century.

Ground B. orellana seeds are often mixed with other seeds or spices to form a paste or powder for culinary use especially in Latin American, Jamaican, Chamorro, and Filipino cuisines. The seeds are heated in oil or lard to extract its dye and flavour for use in dishes and processed foods such as cheese, butter, soup, gravy, sauces, cured meats, and other items. The seeds impart a subtle flavour and aroma and a yellow to reddish-orange colour to food.

The seeds are used to colour and flavour rice instead of the much more expensive saffron. In Brazil, a powder known as colorau or colorífico is made from the ground seeds combined with filler seeds like maize. This powder is similar to and sometimes replaces paprika. The Yucatecan condiment called recado rojo or “achiote paste” is made from ground seeds combined with other spices. It is a mainstay of the Mexican and Belizean cuisines. A condiment called sazón (“seasoning” in Spanish) is commonly used in Puerto Rican cuisine for meats and fish. Sazón is made from achiote seeds, cumin, coriander seeds, salt, and garlic powder.

In the language of flowers the annatto flower conveys the meaning: “Your exotic beauty is captivating”. Annatto seeds given in a small box mean: “You may kiss my lips”.

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