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Annatto (Bixa orellana L.)


胭脂樹 [yīn jī syuh]
Yin ju syuh
胭脂樹 [yān zhī shù]
Yan zhi shu
DutchAnatto, Rocou, Annotto, Achiote, Orleaan
EnglishAchiote, Lipstick tree
EstonianVärvibiksa, Annatopõõsa
FinnishAnnatto, Annattopuu, Orleaani
GermanAnnatto, Orleanstrauch
GaroRong bol
Hebrewעץ הליפסטיק
Etz ha-lipstik
Hindiलटकन, सिंदूरी
Latkan, Sinduri
HungarianOrleánfa, Ruku, Bjoul
ItalianAnnatto, Anotto
FrenchRocou, Roucou, Achiote, Rocouyer
KhmerCham-puu, Chraluek
Kannadaಕುಂಕುಮದ ಗಿಡ
Kunkumada gida
Korean아치오테, 아나토
Achiote, Anato
Laoຊາດ, ສົ້ມພູ
Sat, Som phu
LithuanianDažinė urlija
MalayJarak belanda
Malayalamകുരങ്ങുമഞ്ഞള്‍, കുരങ്ങുമഞ്ഞൾ, അനാട്ടോ
Kurangumannyal, Anatto
Manipuri (Meitei-Lon)উলৈরোম, উরৈরোম
ꯎꯂꯩꯔꯣꯝ, ꯎꯔꯩꯔꯣꯝ
Uleirom, Ureirom
Nepaliसिन्दुरे, सिन्दुर
Sindure, Sindur
Kukuma, Kunkuma
PortugueseAnato, Urucú, Açafroa-do-Brasil, Urucum
RussianАннато, Бикса, Помадное дерево
Annato, Biksa, Pomadnoe derevo
SpanishAchote, Annatto, Achiote; Onoto (Venezuela)
TagalogAchuete, Achwete, Atsuete, Echuete
Tamilசப்பிரா, கொங்காரம்
Kongaram, Sappira
Thaiคำแสด, คำไท, คำเงาะ
Kam saet, Kham thai, Kham ngo
VietnameseHột điều màu, Điều nhuộm
Hot dieu mau, Dieu nhuom
Bixa orellana: Annatto pod split open
Annatto pod with ripe seed
Bixa orellana: Anatto seeds
Annatto seeds
Used plant part

Bright red seeds (about 3 mm dia­meter), which grow in large, red pods covered with soft bristles.

Plant family

Bixaceae (a family with only two representatives in South America).

Sensory quality

Dried annatto seeds have a weak, perfumed odour. In the fresh state, however, their scent is intense and mild–fruity.

Bixa orellana: Annatto flower
Annatto flower

Main constitu­ents

The flowery scent of the fresh seeds is caused by a tri­cyclic sesqui­terpene hydro­carbon, ishwarane.

The red colour is due to several apo­carotenoids located in the seed epi­dermis, of which bixin (9′Z-6,6′-diapo­carotene-6,6′-dioate) is the most impor­tant. Several more caro­tenoids and apo­carotenoids have been identified, e. g., norbixin. Their total amount varies strongly: Common values are 2 to 5%, but the content may reach up to 7% of the dry seeds’ mass. (Phytochemistry, 41, 1201, 1996)


The annatto tree is a tropical plant native to the Carib­bean islands, conti­nental Central America and the western part of South America.

The tree has been introduced to the tropics all over the world; nevertheless, the main producing area is still in South America (Perú, Brazil). Among the Asian countries, India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines have small-scale annatto production; in other tropical countries, it is mostly planted as an ornamental.

Bixa orellana: Annatto pods hanging from a tree
Ripe annatto pod clusters growing on a tree in pendant position

The scientific species name orellana is derived from the name of Francisco de Orellana (1511–1546), a Spanish explorer of the century who had taken part in various expeditions to the New World, securing colonies for the Spanish crown.

Together with Francisco Pizarro, Orellana had been involved in the destruction of the Inca Empire; in 1540, he participated in another expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro. Following false rumours about gold and cinnamon trees, about 2000 Spaniards entered the Peruvian and Brazilian jungles, where most of them perished. Orellana aban­doned the party and made his way eastward, where he (more or less by chance) discovered the Amazon River and earned scientific fame quite undeservedly.

Bixa orellana: Achiote pods split-open to expose the seeds
Annatto pod cluster with central pod already dry and open, exposing the seeds
Bixa orellana: Bright red Annatto pods
Ripe Annatto pods

By confusion of the Spanish name with the French town Orleans, the German name Orlean­strauch, literally meaning shrub of Orleans emerged.

Other names of this plant all stem from Indio tongues in Central and South America. Most languages derive their names for this plant from Carib annatto, which is loaned mostly in unaltered shape. The Tupi-Guarani term urucul (in the Amazon region) has also been borrowed by some languages, e. g., French rocou, Portuguese urucú and presumably Manipuri ureirom [উরৈরোম, ꯎꯔꯩꯔꯣꯝ]. In México, the spice is known as achiote in the Náhuatl language; that name is commonly used in the USA and has also entered a few more languages (Arabic atshiut [آتشيوت] and Bulgarian achyote [ачиоте]). The scientific genus name, Bixa, was taken from another Carib plant name usually transcribed as bija or biché.

English lipstick tree refers to the cosmetic use of the plant, and Russian pomadnoe derevo [помадное дерево] ointment tree was probably given in a similar vein. Using the annatto dye for cosmetic products is largely obsolete, but usage of annatto for ritual bodypaint is rather ancient, being reported from pre-Colombian Aztecs.

Selected Links

A Pinch of Annatto ( The Epicentre: Annatto Pacific Islands Ecosystems at Risk: Annatto Recipe: Chamorro red rice ( Recipe: Cochinita Pibil (Pork Dish Maya Style) ( Recipe: Traditional achiote recado ( Receta: Pescado Pibil (tikinxic) ( Recipe: Mayan Chicken With Spicy Orange Paste ( Recipe: Ga quay mat ong [gà quay mật ong] – Vietnamese Roasted Chicken ( via Rain Tree: Annatto

Bixa orellana: Annatto tree with fruit clusters
Annatto tree with ripe fruits
Bixa orellana: Annato shrub
Annatto shrub with flowers and fruits   © Gerald Carr

Annatto is na­tive to South America, and is currently mostly in use as a flavouring and food colouring in Central and Northern South America. In the Carib­bean, the seeds are usually fried in (animal or vegetable) fat; after dis­carding the seeds, the then golden-​yellow fat is used to fry vege­tables or meat. By this pro­cedure, a golden yellow to golden brown colour is achieved. Mexican cooks often use a paste (achiote) of annatto seeds with some preser­vatives (acetic acid) that dis­solves completely in hot fat; it is easy to use and can also be added to mari­nades and sauces to improve the colour. Similar use is found in South America, namely, Perú and Bolivia.

The original Aztec drinking chocolate (see also vanilla) is reported to have contained annatto seeds as well; given their high fat content, this is entirely plausible, even more since the crimson red colour bears associations with blood and thus had religious connotations in Aztec society. Using annatto to deepen the colour of chocolate was common in Europe until the century; today, the spice has little if any significance and is used occasionally to give butter and cheese a deep yellow colour (see also blue fenugreek).

In South México (Yucatán), meat is often marinated with a spice mixture called recado that derives its vibrantly yellow colour from liberal addition of annatto. The annatto seeds may be used ground (often after soaking in hot water to soften them) or in form of annatto oil. Recado is made from annatto, dried oregano, ground spices (black pepper, allspice and cumin), garlic and fiery Yucatecan chiles. They key flavour is the juice of bitter oranges (also known as sour oranges or Seville oranges) which adds a distinct, acidic fruitiness.

Bixa orellana: Annatto flower
Annatto flower
Bixa orellana: Annatto flower and immature pods
Annatto flower and immature pods

Recado‑ma­ri­nated meats are wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a hot stone pit. Baking in a hot oven, pan-frying or grilling is also possible. The technique can be applied to poultry and fish, but is most popular for pork, especially suckling pig. Food prepared this way is generally referred to as pibil.

By Spanish influence, annatto also has made its way to South East Asia. On the Philippines, the seeds are often ground to a powder and added to soups and stews; meat is often marinated with annatto-coloured seasonings. The colour obtained hereby is brownish–yellow, less vibrant than the colour resulting from usage of annatto oil in the Caribbean. The nearby Mariana Islands also have annatto seeds in their culinary repertoire; there, the fresh seeds are a component in spice pastes and lend a deep crimson red colour to rice or pork dishes.

Besides Philip­pino cooking, the cui­sines of South East Asia make little use of annatto seeds. In Viet­nam, bat­ters are often pre­pared with annatto oil to achieve a more attractive colour; annatto oil is also common for improving the colour of coconut-based curries (ca ri [cà ri], see rice paddy herb). Lastly, there are Vietnamese varieties of Beijing duck (ga quay mat ong [gà quay mật ong], can be prepared with either duck or chicken) that use annatto oil to colour the bird’s skin; Chinese cooks produce a similar colour by treating the duck with malt solutions, which caramelizes during baking. In China, annatto seeds are occasionally contained in seasonings or marinades for grilled or fried meats (predominantly pork), resulting in a bright orange meat surface.

Although some books state that annatto imparts its specific flavour to the food stained therewith, I cannot myself agree with this opinion. It is true that pure annatto seeds have same very faint fragrance, but this aroma is not transmitted to the food. Yet fresh seeds are indeed a lot more aromatic (and also have much better and redder colour), and it appears likely that annatto using cooks would go for fresh seeds whenever the latter are available, even if cookbooks are silent on that issue. The only cooking style of which I have confirmed knoledge that fresh seeds are used is the Chamorro cooking from the Mariana Islands.

Orange or yellow hues can also be obtained with several other plants. A chemically similar dye is contained in saffron, and the colour may become quite similar; yet saffron with its in­comparable fragrance is much more than just a colouring agent. Safflower, in contrast, does not have any taste at all and can, therefore, be used whenever colour is desired but no aroma wanted; but its staining capability is low. Lastly, turmeric has a strong, earthy aroma and stains food bright yellow.

Bixa orellana: Unripe annatto capsules
Unripe annatto pods
Bixa orellana: Annato fruits
Ripe annatto fruits

Both tur­meric and saffron can even be used to dye textiles; both are, however, not light­proof (and saffron is very expensive, though this usage is mentioned in the Bible; see pomegranate).

Leaves can also be used to colour food, but, in general, they will give only a modestly green colour (see pandanus leaves or mugwort for examples in Asian sweetmeats). In the wild, leaf colours other than green are rare, but gardeners have succeeded in breeding cultivars with red or otherwise coloured leaves from many herbs and other plants (e. g., basil, sage or, most spectacularly, chameleon plant). In Japan, a purple-leaved variety of perilla is used to colour pickled ginger.

The green leaf pigment chlorophyll is also responsible for the greenish colour of some vegetable oils, namely olive oil and pumpkin seed oil. Although the former is usually too pale, the latter can be used to give both flavour and colour to a variety of mostly cold foods.

There are no easy ways to achieve other colours with spices; several vegetables, however, fortunately can fill this hole. Spinach is common for a bright green (because it is more colourful than most other leaves), tomatoes for red, carrots for orange and aubergines for purple. Italian cooks sometimes use the dark ink of squids to give their noodles (pasta) or rice dishes (risotto) an exotic black colour. Another, very unusual colouring agent is the dried cochenille bug, which gives a bright and appealing pink (appalling though the culinary use of an insect may seem). For those loathing beetles, the red beet is a viable and efficient alternative.

Blue is the colour most difficult to achieve by natural dyes; people have tried their luck with several flowers (e. g., borage), but apart from being only seasonally available, none has proved sufficient colouring capability. The best results are obtained with a plant from South East Asia called butterfly pea (Clitoria ternatea, Fabaceae), whose deep blue coloured flowers have been used to colour desserts, particularly in Thailand; but in our days, synthetic food dyes have become much more popular.

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