If you've ever marveled at the striking orange hue of a Filipino dish, chances are you've encountered annatto. Known as "atsuete," this often-overlooked ingredient provides a rich color without affecting flavor. Let's find out what makes annatto a unique player in the kitchen.
What is annatto?
Annatto goes by different names globally—known as achiote in many places and as atsuete or achuete in the Philippines. It is derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, native to tropical areas in the Americas.
The seeds are housed in spiky pods and provide a vibrant orange-red pigment used for everything from food coloring to textile dyeing. The pigment primarily comes from natural compounds called carotenoids, specifically bixin and norbixin.
You can use the seeds in various forms—either ground into a powder or paste, or by extracting their color with hot water, oil, or lard. While annatto has a mildly peppery scent and a hint of nutmeg in its flavor profile, it is generally used for its color rather than its taste.
In cooking, annatto is often found in processed foods like cheeses, chorizo or sausages, and baked goods as a natural substitute for artificial coloring. In Filipino cuisine, it's primarily used to impart a rich orange color to stews, marinades, and rice dishes.
What does annatto taste like?
Annatto is generally considered to have a subtle, earthy flavor. Some describe it as slightly peppery with a hint of nutmeg. However, it's important to note that annatto is most commonly used for its vibrant color rather than its flavor.
In many recipes, the seeds or the extracted color are used to give dishes a rich orange hue. The taste is usually so subtle that it's often not noticeable in the final dish.
How to use annatto
Annatto seeds are the most basic form you'll find. They're usually steeped in hot water or oil to release their color.
Annatto also comes in powder form, which can be directly added to your recipes. Just remember, a little goes a long way. To avoid lumps, dissolve the powder in warm water before adding it to your dish.
Oil (Atsuete oil)
In Filipino cooking, atsuete or annatto oil is a popular preparation made by simmering the seeds in oil until the desired color is reached. This versatile oil is used in sautéing, as a base for stews and marinades, or as a condiment. It looks similar to chili garlic oil, but lacks its distinct flavor and texture.
Annatto is a natural coloring agent and spice that has been a staple in regions like Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines. According to Healthline, aside from its culinary uses, it is associated with these potential health benefits:
- Antioxidant Properties: It has compounds like tocotrienols and carotenoids that combat oxidative stress and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
- Antimicrobial Activity: Its antimicrobial properties are effective against specific bacteria and fungi, making it valuable for preserving food by preventing spoilage and extending shelf life.
- Anti-Inflammatory Effects: Some studies indicate that it can help reduce inflammation in the body, potentially lowering the risk of related conditions.
- Potential Cancer Prevention: Its carotenoids and tocotrienols have been studied for their ability to inhibit certain cancer cells' growth, though more research is needed to validate these findings.
- Vision Health: Its carotenoids may support eye health and potentially reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration.
While annatto is generally considered safe to eat, some might experience allergic reactions to it. Use annatto supplements or medicinal amounts with caution, especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding, due to insufficient safety data.
Natural substances like annatto shouldn't replace a balanced diet, regular exercise, prescribed treatments, or a healthy lifestyle. Always consult a healthcare professional before using supplements therapeutically.
How to buy and store
Find annatto at your local grocery store or buy it online. It’s often in stores that sell Latin American or Filipino foods. You can buy annatto as seeds, powder, or oil.
Store annatto seeds or powder in a closed container in a cool, dark place. Buy amounts you'll use within a few months, and always check the expiration date. Keep annatto oil in a sealed bottle; it remains fresh without refrigeration.
Filipino recipes with annatto
Annatto lends a yellow to reddish color to the food with a very subtle flavor. Here are examples where it is commonly used:
- Kare-Kare: A traditional beef stew with a savory peanut sauce and a distinct orange color. It includes vegetables like eggplant, bok choy, banana heart, and yardlong beans.
- Pancit Malabon: Originating from Malabon, Metro Manila, it has thick noodles and an orange sauce made with shrimp, pork, annatto, then topped with seafood, boiled eggs, tinapa (smoked fish), and chicharon.
- Pancit Palabok: Thin noodles with a bright orange sauce, topped with shrimp, ground pork, eggs, tinapa flakes, and chicharon.
- Chicken Inasal: Grilled chicken marinated in lemongrass, ginger, calamansi, and vinegar, then basted with annatto oil.
- Java Rice: Fried rice with a vibrant yellow or orange hue from turmeric or annatto. It's a popular pairing with grilled or fried meats and seafood.
- Longganisa: In some regions of the Philippines, annatto is used to add color to these sweet and savory sausages.
- Tocino: Made with pork or chicken, this sweetened cured meat is a breakfast staple. It's known for its sweet, savory, and garlicky flavor, usually colored with annatto.
- Ukoy: Crispy shrimp fritters, often enjoyed as a snack or side dish, may use annatto for a subtle color.
- Escabeche: This is sweet and sour fish with a vinegar-based sauce that may include annatto for color.
- Kutsinta: A chewy, orange-brown rice cake colored with annatto and topped with freshly grated coconut.
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