A is for Annatto Seeds

annatto seeds 2
Big A, little a, what begins with A?

According to Dr. Seuss’s ABC, “Aunt Annie’s alligator …. A . . a . . A”

I used to read that book to my nieces when they were little. We all still love the goofy rhymes and fun illustrations.

But in this blog post, A is for annatto. No, not natto. That’s a traditional dish in Japan, made by fermenting soybeans until they are slimy and stinky. And stringy. Definitely an acquired taste, but some people love it, and it’s super-nutritious. But I digress…

annatto seedsAnnatto seeds come from a tropical evergreen shrub, Bixa orellana, native to the tropical and sub-tropical Americas. The shrub bears lovely pink or white five-petalled wild-rose-like flowers. From the flowers come strange fruits that remind me of strawberries, except that they’re spiny. These ripen, dry and split open to reveal the brick red seeds inside.

Annatto has a long culinary and medicinal history. In Suriname, the entire plant was used in traditional medicine to treat fever, nausea and dysentery, and they used the saffron-coloured dye obtained from the seeds as a body paint. The Caribs and Mayans used it to colour their bodies too, and the Mayans also used it as a food colouring and in their arts. In Colombia, healers used it to treat snakebites.

Today, it’s still an ingredient most often used to colour foods, but also for its mildly musky flavour. As a natural food colouring, it has replaced chemical-based ones in mass-produced foods, and cheese-makers have long used it to give cheeses an orange hue. Annatto oil is an emollient with a high carotenoid content, so it’s a common ingredient in body lotions and shampoo too. However, a small percentage of people are sensitive or allergic to annatto, so now some companies are removing it from their products.

The plant and seeds have many names, as they are used in so many different cultures. Achiote, roucou, bija, changuarica, lipstick plant (because of its use by indigenous peoples as a cosmetic), kam saet, and many more.

According to Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages, “The original Aztec drinking chocolate . . . 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.”

seeds and oilIn the Vietnamese kitchen, annatto seeds are called hột điều, or hột điều màu. (Màu means colour.) They are stirred into hot oil and left to steep briefly, after which they are strained out and the oil is used to colour certain dishes. Some people spoon a little of this oil onto individual servings of Huế beef noodle soup to give it its traditional reddish hue, but I’ve never seen this done in Huế. My mother-in-law and other Huế cooks I know prefer to use a chili-based paste to colour their beloved bún bò Huế. I prefer the chili paste too, for its bite and complex flavours from the other ingredients used to prepare it. Also, if you get any drops of soup coloured with annatto oil on your white shirt, you’ll always have orange spots to remind you of your meal.

Some cooks use the oil to produce the orangey colour in beef stew with star anise (bò kho), a popular breakfast dish served with baguette in the south. Others say that this is not traditional. Mai Pham includes a recipe for bò kho prepared with annatto oil in her book Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table. I’ve tried her recipe and liked it, but I prefer the dish prepared with fresh tomatoes, which lend a lovely flavour as well as a more subtle colour.

Annatto seeds vary from a brick red to an orangey-red. If they’re brownish, leave them on the supermarket shelf. To make annatto-infused oil, use about two teaspoons of seeds per three tablespoons of vegetable oil. Heat the oil on medium. When it’s hot, add the annatto seeds. Stir them briefly and watch as the oil begins to foam around them and turn red. It doesn’t take long. At this point, remove from the heat, let cool briefly and strain the oil. It’s ready to use or store. It keeps very well.infusing the oil - late afternoon sun x

Some Vietnamese cooks add a crushed garlic clove to the oil when they stir in the seeds, to add flavour and to cut the scent of the annatto, which some find unpleasant. I like the scent, and usually it only gets unpleasant if you overheat them. Use a moderate setting and keep your eye on them.

Another way to use annatto seeds is to grind them to a powder. In her cookbook Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors , Andrea Nguyen suggests simmering this powder right in the broth for Huế beef noodle soup instead of spooning the infused oil on afterwards.

Do you use annatto seeds in your kitchen? If you have any favourite recipes that include them, I’d love to hear from you. Leave a note in the comments.

This is my first post for the A to Z blog challenge. Stay tuned for B, and please check out the other participants’ blogs too:
Margrét Helgadottir – Growing up as a cross-cultural kid
Jo Thomas – Mousie the stuffed mouse tours Thurnscoe, South Yorkshire
Dorothee Lang – Playing with language
Rose Hunter – Place/Memory
Jane Hammons – Random topics
Fred Osuna – “My South.”


About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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18 Responses to A is for Annatto Seeds

  1. Jane Hammons says:

    as usual, beautiful photographs! I look forward to learning all about Vietnamese cuisine–I eat plenty of it, but only in restaurants.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks, Jane! I don’t know yet if all the posts will be cuisine-oriented, but most of them will be. I think. What are your favourite dishes?

  2. Rose Hunter says:

    Achiote! Yes, I know it as that from Mexico.
    I don’t cook, heh, so I can’t comment on that. I do like eating though…. There are some great Vietnamese restaurants here (in Brisbane). I used go to them as a student. I will have to check them out again now. …

    • Chris says:

      Hi Rose, I considered going into a bit more detail, e.g. called achiote in Mexico and used for such and such dishes, but I didn’t want the article to get too long. Trying to keep them short for those of us who are trying to keep up with all of each other’s A – Z posts. Glad I’m inspiring you to try out some Viet restos again.

  3. Such a tasty post, and reading it, i noticed more a-words: aquired, Americas, Aztec, Anchiote… words, they have a flavour of their own. looking very forward to your culinary endevours!

  4. Such a lovely post, Chris. Beautiful pictures. Good start! I’ve never heard of Annatto seeds before. Look forward to read your coming posts 🙂

  5. Eric Syrdal says:

    Big Z little z what begins with Z? I do…I’m a Zizzerzazzerzuzz…as you can plainly see.

    Used to read that book to my little ones too, every night for bed.

    Great post, Chris! 🙂

    • Chris says:

      Perfect, Eric! Well, looks like we’ve gone A to Z in this post. Does that mean I’m off the hook for the other 24 letters? Heheh.Thanks for reading.

  6. Have seen annatto listed as a natural colouring but never actually knew what it was. What a wonderful colour the seeds are.

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