Achuete is probably the most important ingredient in the Filipino cuisine. The bright red color that imparts in the food makes the food more palatable and presentable. It is most used in recipes that we inherited from the Spaniards like the dish we call “menudo” or the famous “paella”.
Achuete is an evergreen, flowering tree and is native to South and Central America. It was introduced by the Spaniards to the Philippines during the colonial times. It can grow up to 6 meters in height and will last up to 50 years in the right conditions. The leaves are heart-shaped with a pointed tip. The fruit is also heart-shaped and hairy like the rambutan. It is red or maroon in color and turns brown when mature. The fruit is filled with red seeds which is the main product derive from this tree. The seeds produces the red color that we use for cooking. It does not impart any flavor of its own unlike curry or saffron.
We have an achuete tree in our backyard when I was growing up and my playmates and I use the seeds (it is actually the seeds that are used for coloring) for make-up like lipstick or blush on. It is actually called a lipstick plant in some places. We even used it to color our fingernails. I am sure other cultures used this wonderful coloring agent in dyeing fabrics and other uses.
The tree needs full sun. It is not particular on soils. It is drought tolerant when the plant is fully established.
I remember, it is actually in the middle of summer when the mature fruits will open up and we gather them and collect the seeds and put them in a glass jar for future use.
Achuete in the Philippines is sold in seed form or powder. If you use the seeds, it has to be soaked in water first and strain the seeds before putting it in your recipe. Some cooks put the seeds in oil and use the oil for stir frying or sautéing. I personally like the powder form. It is practical and so easy to use.