Annatto-The everyday spice of Yucatecan Cuisine

While recently in the Yucatan, we were introduced to Annatto seeds which make a mild flavored condiment. It is also known as Achiote.  It remains today one of the hallmarks of the Maya cuisine. In pre-conquest times it was integral to the Maya culture as well.  People used Annatto for painting their bodies as it resembled the color of blood. Blood and human sacrifices were very much part of Maya religious rituals to appease the gods. Annatto was also added to cacao to make a ritual drink for ceremonial purposes.  

In modern times, its most common use is as a key ingredient for Recado rojo, a seasoning blend.  Recado rojo is readily available throughout the Yucatan often found as one of the many towering cones of colorful powdered spices omnipresent in the local Mercados.  In the US, it can be found as a prepared paste in Hispanic grocery stores or in the international aisles of larger super markets. (La Anita and El Yucatecan are popular brands.) In New York City you can buy it in powdered form for $4.99 or as seeds for $2.99 at our most famous spice emporium, Kalustyan’s.  You can also purchase online at

Used in cooking, it has two purposes.   First, it can be turned into a thick, creamy paste by adding Naranja agria or sour orange juice or vinegar. This is a typical Yucatecan marinade used for meat, poultry or fish.  After four to six hours of resting in the marinade, typically Maya cooks then wrap whatever they are making in banana leaves to later bake in an underground Pibil or pit which adds a smoky element to the dish.

A second use is for coloring packaged goods such as snacks and cheese. When mixed with water or broth, it is also added to ground corn masa for making tamales as well as to season other dishes. 

For you adventurous cooks, here is an easy recipe to make your own Recado rojo:


¼ cup Annatto seeds

1 Tablespoon coriander seeds

1 Tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

4 whole cloves

1 teaspoon salt

5 cloves garlic, peeled

½ cup sour orange, or Seville orange juice (Substitute: ¼ cup orange juice and ¼ cup lime juice, or 1/3 cup white vinegar)

Cooking directions: 

1.      Either in a grinder or mortar and pestle, grind together the Annatto seeds, coriander, oregano, peppercorns and cloves.

2.      Put the ground spices, garlic, salt and liquid into a blender and process into a smooth paste.

3.       Store in an airtight container and use as directed in the recipe.

Helpful hints:  This is a wickedly powerful coloring spice. To avoid staining, be careful to cover all cooking surfaces and use rubber gloves to protect that perfect manicure.