Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Achuete (Bixa orellana)

The achuete, achiote (the latter being the Nauhatl term, used in the warmer Americas) or annatto is one of my favorite plants. I say this because it is all-around an interesting specimen, with a beautiful flower, a strange-looking fruit, and some great culinary and home-dyeing applications. It is safe to say that though we encounter the seed's coloration in some of our most famous dishes (kare-kare and pansit luglug), we rarely bump into the living specimen anymore.

With soft red spines in the young pods, the fruit looks like a small, heart-shaped rambutan (which is, in fact, what most people think it is when they see it). If that couldn't be endearing enough, break it open and you will find supple, moist red seeds, just ready to be used as lipstick or writing on friends' faces. Which is what I do sometimes, without a mirror, while gardening, and have only yesterday been met with "what's that on your lip?".

The young leaves begin brown, like the mango tree, and proceed to form a fat, shiny heart shape. My tree began flowering at such a low height, it was surprising. The blooms are pretty, pinkish, with the petals curving inward. These give way to a round berry-like thing, which is the full fruit waiting to happen.

Slowly these begin to grow the little hairs or spines that the plant is famous for.

The specimen above is actually abnormal, with few hairs but actually not quite mature. It's my garden's little, less aesthetically pleasing excuse for an achuete, but inside it actually had pretty fat, supple, pulpy seeds.

When the pods dry, they open up, begging you to take custody and propagate them. Their somewhat genital appearance reinforces the fact in your mind that they are usedas a "female aphrodisiac" in the Amazon.

Aside from the myriad of medicinal uses, the achuete's obvious strength in human use is its natural, red-orange color. It is used to safely give some life to pale food products such as cheese, spreads, and oils. This is because of the high amount of carotenoids in the plant, which is said to keep people healthy.

One particular indigenous use in Ecuador is the most interesting, for me. The men from the Tsachila indigenous group form a brilliant paste of achuete and grease and apply this to their hair. As they shave the sides of their head and keep a "crown" that is strikingly colored, they look like slick, beautiful birds (see photo above, taken from here). The achuete is supposed to represent strength to them, as well . A most curious fact is that the Tsachila only began wearing their hair like this after the Spanish arrived, supposedly to protect themselves from disease brought by the conquistadores. Below is a video showing the coloration process:

I dunno about you, but this gives me ideas for Halloween costumes or boring-day activities. The possibilities are endless, but my time today is not, so I'll end this post with a photo of a coat of mine, made with pineapple leaves and local cotton, then dyed with annatto seeds:


Diego said...

Beautiful coat! Reposting this.

Diego said...

Have you seen this issue of Town and Country? http://kapuluanvistaresort.blogspot.com/2009/08/achuete-that-wows.html

TeresaR said...

Wow! How cool is this? You're right, I am familiar with the rambutan, but not with this fruit. This was very enlightening, thank you!

And thank you also for visiting my blog and complimenting my sons. :)

Have a very Happy New Year!

Bea said...

Diego, that is a very cool arrangement! I assume you're back in Canada now..

Teresa, are you Filipina?

veronica said...

In iloilo there's a baudy riddle that goes like this: Maitum kag bulbulon, mapula kung burikaton. The first image that comes to mind when you first hear it is "vagina", but the answer is actually atsuete.

Bea said...

Veronica, that riddle is fantastic!