Achiote is a condiment used in Southern Mexico, around the Caribbean, and through South America. It has an earthy, slightly spicy aroma but is mainly used for its brilliant red color — often now substituting for the historically common carmine, or cochineal, which people sometimes don’t like because it’s made with squished insects. Achiote is made from the seed of the annatto tree (Bixa orrellana). The seeds, and the prepared paste, are pretty readily available in Latin markets. It’s an essential ingredient in dishes such as al pastor, anticuchos, and cochinita pibil.
Achiote seeds are very hard. It’s one of the few spices that you should probably just buy ground — unless you have an electric spice grinder. Even the Normandie mortar and pestle doesn’t quite manage to get rid of all the hard bits. The commercial paste comes with a little bit of vinegar and some other spices already added, but unlike most premade pastes, stores pretty well.
The tree grows very commonly in the Yucatan. You can often even see them, growing by the road. But it requires a little more heat and humidity than Los Angeles can offer. The only place we’ve seen it growing in LA is at the LA Arboretum, in the greenhouse.