Use Annatto for Color and Flavor

Some months ago, I noticed a tree with weird-looking pods in the backyard. Curious, I asked my landlord. It’s annatto, she said. I’d heard about annatto – it’s the coloring agent that gives patties their distinctive yellowish-red color – but had never seen it.

Annatto is a native of Central and South America. I’m not sure how it came to Jamaica but as early as the 1700s, the British found it growing in abundance in one of the towns in the eastern parish of St. Mary and renamed the town Annotto Bay.

Annatto, called natto or natta locally, was grown commercially mainly in St. Mary and was popular with my grandmother’s and even my mother’s generation. They used it to add a rich and distinctive red color to foods from fish and fritters.

At some point, annatto lost favor to the more convenient artificial dyes that flooded the market. But with consumers becoming savvy and concerned about their foods, annatto seems to be getting a fresh look.

With no sodium, fat or starches you can probably see why annatto would be a better alternative to artificial dye. It is also good for stomachaches, heartburn, fever, diabetes, and burns. Some even use it as an insect repellant, and it’s been used in cosmetics.

Annatto trees produce a cluster of pointy pods that are covered with long spikes. Each pod contains about 12-15 small, red seeds, which are hard and difficult to break. According to my landlord, the best way to use annatto is to fry the seeds or soak them in water. Once you get the color you want, remove them and use the oil or water to color and flavor your dish.

Commercially prepared annatto powder is available in specialty stores or in supermarkets that sell ethnic foods. Look for annatto or achiote in either power, paste or oil.

Lobster San Souci
Serves 8

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  1. 1 large carrot, chopped
  2. 1 medium onion, chopped
  3. 1 bay leaf
  4. 10 whole black peppercorns
  5. 4 cups water
  6. 1 ½ cups clarified butter
  7. 1 scallion, minced
  8. 2 tsps. finely chopped lemongrass
  9. ½ tsp. annatto seeds
  10. ½ tsp. minced garlic
  11. 1 eggplant, thinly sliced into rounds
  12. Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  13. 8 Caribbean rock lobster tails
  14. 1 cup whole kernel corn
  15. 1 Scotch bonnet or jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
  16. ¼ cup grated coconut
  17. 1 cup heavy cream
  1. Place the carrot, onion, bay leaf, peppercorn and water in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Strain the stock, discard the vegetables and bay leaf, and reserve the stock in the same pot.
  2. In a medium skillet, add the clarified butter along with the scallion, lemongrass, annatto, thyme and garlic. Heat until hot. Remove from the heat.
  3. Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Coat the eggplant rounds with a half cup of the clarified butter mixture. Add the eggplant to the skillet in batches, and cook until tender. Remove from the skillet, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cover to keep warm.
  4. Bring the reserved stock to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the lobster tails, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer until the meat is tender, 12-13 minutes. Remove the lobster from the stock and set aside.
  5. Heat 1 tablespoon of the remaining butter, and quickly sauté the corn and the hot pepper for about 1 minute. Add the grated coconut and the cream, and cook until the liquid has become quite thick, 4-5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Serve the lobster tails with the remaining cup of butter on the side, along with the eggplant chips and the creamed corn.
Adapted from Food of Jamaica: Authentic Recipes from the Jewel of the Caribbean
Adapted from Food of Jamaica: Authentic Recipes from the Jewel of the Caribbean

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15 comments on “Use Annatto for Color and Flavor

  1. It’s funny how we’re coming full circle and returning to traditional methods to colour and flavour our food. Actually it’s crazy that people ever though chemicals could be better than natural! It’s so interesting to learn about the culinary traditionas and foods of Jamaica; I so wish I could visit to try all htese things myself. Thanks for sharing Marcia.

  2. I tried to comment earlier but I’m not sure if it worked, so maybe you’ll get 2 comments from me! I love learning about all these exotic and different foods you have in Jamaica and hope I can visit one day to try them for myself. Thanks for sharing Marcia.

  3. Interesting plant, Interesting too, how the plant is gaining favor as people seek natural alternatives over artificial ones.

  4. That recipe sounds delicious. I would much prefer the real thing to some artificial flavoring. I love the fact that a lot of people are ditching “phony” food for the real thing, these days.

  5. Oh Marcia, we’ve used anchiote since our Mexico days and I’d never pondered where it came from or what it was — thanks for such an informative (as always!) post!!

  6. I love learning about foods on your blog. Most I’ve heard of but certainly never cooked with. I probably need to head to Jamaica for those Caribbean rock lobster tails. Yum.

  7. So cool, I’ve never heard of this plant before! Wonder if it can be purchased elsewhere, I’ll have to keep an eye out. That recipe too sounds delish!

  8. Fascinating post, Marcia. I’m glad to hear the coloring of patties is natural. I’ve always thought it so bright that it had to be artificial. Good to know!

  9. You should be able to find it if there are ethnic stores in your area that sell foods from Latin America, Eileen.
    Hope you get to try the recipe.

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