Color Yourself on Vacation: Annatto adds tropical splash to your cooking

Memories of tropical vacations often revolve around food: snacking on tostones with cerveza under a small beach palapa or eating fragrant coconut curry at an open-air restaurant across from the Malecón. If you’re not putting your passport to use this summer, why not bring a taste of the tropics into your kitchen? Exploring tropical cuisine can be as straightforward as choosing one exotic ingredient to introduce into your repertoire. A packet of annatto seeds, for example, gives dishes a splash of tangerine color that instantly says “tropical.”

A staple in Latin and Caribbean cooking, annatto seeds look like tiny, uneven brick-red pebbles. While annatto smells pleasantly earthy, it imparts no discernible flavor. It’s the vivid color annatto imbues that makes the spice worth seeking out. So vivid, in fact, that you’ll want to take care when cooking with annatto due to the potential to stain. Save the gauzy white shirt you brought home from your last tropical vacation to wear after you’ve finished cooking.

The well-stocked Latin market will carry three forms of annatto, also called achiote, for culinary use: whole annatto seeds (achiote entero), ground annatto seeds (achiote molido), and rectangular blocks of annatto paste (achiote condimentado). Whole seeds simmered with oil infuse it with a brilliant red-orange hue. Use the infused oil anywhere to add a festive tint, such as in a skillet to sauté vegetables or in the pot as you cook rice. Prepared annatto paste comes seasoned with salt and spices. Dilute the paste with oil, vinegar or lime juice, and then add it to dishes for color as you would the infused oil. Or spread the diluted paste on tofu or other protein sources as a marinade.

Arroz con pollo, typically served at Costa Rican celebrations and restaurants, gets its lush orange tone from annatto. This vegetarian version, sin pollo (without chicken), features both annatto powder and annatto-infused oil. The result satisfies without being heavy, just right for a warm St. Louis day. To continue the Costa Rican theme, liberally season the dish with Salsa Lizano, a mildly spicy, light brown sauce of chiles, vegetables, spices and molasses. With a side of patacones (fried plantains) and a rum and Coke, this tropical meal is complete.

Lisa Ellis spends her free time planning her next trip and blogging on vegan cooking at