Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What's the Saffron of Latin America?

It's Achiote, also known as Annotto!. This spice, with it's slightly nutty, sweet, and peppery flavor, comes from the Achiote trees (aka., "lipstick trees") of the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. The exterior of the seed pods are inedible, but the seeds inside are ground to add their exotic flavor to Mexican and Carribean cuisine. In addition, achiote is used as a food coloring in some cheeses and dairy products, and is used in Central and South America to make body paint and lipstick! The paste is available commercially, and is essential in traditional Mexican fare, such as fish tacos, roast pork, mexican rice, and grilled turkey, to name a few. Here is a great recipe for "Mexican Achiote Rice," which is supposedly the "house" rice at Frontera Grill, one of Rick Bayless's renowned restaurants in Chicago!

Mexican Achiote Rice (Arroz Amarillo)

Serves 4-6


For the garlicky achiote seasoning paste
2 tablespoons achiote seeds (I use the paste, like El Yucateco, available online at
2 teaspoons allspice
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, preferable Mexican
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
6 garlic cloves, peeled (if doing without mortar and pestle, chop finely)
Salt, about 2 teaspoons

For the rice
1 cup fresh (or defrosted frozen) peas
1 cup rice, preferably medium grain
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 small white onion, finely chopped
1 3/4 cups broth, preferably pork or beef broth
2 medium carrots, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
Chopped cilantro, for garnish


For the garlicky achiote paste
Add the achiote seeds (freshly ground in a spice grinder) or achiote paste, allspice, pepper, oregano, and vinegar to a mortar and pestle (click here for information about mortars and pestles), or small bowl and mix well to create a smooth paste.

Add the garlic and 1 teaspoon salt, and work together into a smooth paste.

Next, dribble on and work in enough water (usually about a tablespoon or 2) to give it all the consistency of a thick but spreadable paste. You will need 2 tablespoons of the achiote paste. (Reserve the remainder in a small jar for future use on chicken, fish, pork, turkey, or rice. It will keep in the refrigerator for a while.)

For the rice
Cook the fresh peas in a pot of boiling water until tender, drain and set aside. Or simply measure out frozen peas.

In a 2-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the canola oil over medium heat and add the rice and onion. Cook, stirring regularly and scraping up any sticky bits from the bottom of the pan, until the rice is chalky looking and the onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat the broth and the 2 tablespoons of achiote paste, along with 1/2-1 teaspoon of salt, depending on the saltiness of the broth. Whisk the broth mixture well, then add to the hot rice pan. Add the carrots. Stir once, scrape down any rice kernels clinging to the side of the pan, cover and cook over medium-low for 15 minutes. 

Uncover and bite into a grain of rice: It should be nearly cooked through. If the rice is just about ready, turn off the heat, stir in the peas, re-cover, and let stand for 5-10 minutes longer to complete the cooking. If the rice seems far from done, cook for 5 minutes or so, retest and then add the peas, remove from the heat, and let stand a few minutes. Fluff the rice, scoop it into a warm serving dish, sprinkle with cilantro and serve. It's enticingly exotic!

Recipe adapted from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen.


  1. Great recipe but long, I'm mexican but never used this Achiote, it seems delicious, thanks.

  2. Hi Blance - Achiote is particularly popular in the Yucatan and Oaxacan cuisine. It definitely adds a distinctive flavor that is quite exotic and addictive! This recipe isn't that time consuming and is delicious alongside Pork Carnitas, see Recipes! I hope you give it a try! Thanks for visiting my site!