Friday, April 23, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Achiote or Annatto (Urucum)

If Brazilian cuisine has a characteristic color, it is a bright, warm, reddish-orange. From north to south  in Brazil, dishes arrive at the table bursting with this appetizing color, which identifies the dish as traditionally Brazilian. This vivid color is obtained primarily from one of two ingredients -  the palm oil known as dendê, which is predominant in the African-influenced foods of Bahia (click here to read about dendê), or a natural, seed-derived coloring agent called urucum in Portuguese, but which is better known in North America as either achiote or annatto. Urucum is added to soups, stews, and other dishes when the cook desires the red-orange color it imparts, but does not want to add an additional flavor to the dish. Dendê is as strongly-flavored as it is highly-colored, and because of this, is not appropriate to add to a dish merely to color it. It will dramatically change the flavor profile. Urucum, on the other hand, has minimal flavor, and can be added to almost any dish without changing the flavor.

The Portuguese word urucum comes from the native Indian language Tupi - "uru-ku" meaning red. Urucum is harvested from a large tree native to the Amazonian rain forest (Bixa orellana), and was used by the Indians of Brazil long before the arrival of Europeans on these shores. Indians still living in the rain forest use urucum not only to color their foods, but also to color their bodies and hair. Rubbing urucum into the skin not only stains it a bright orange, but provides protection against insect bites and the rays of the sun. After repeated applications of urucum, it penetrates the skin and becomes impermeable.

Urucum trees grow tall in the rain forest, and the seed pods are covered with extremely sharp spines. Inside the pod are twenty or so small red seeds which are ground into a powder to make urucum. Commercially, the powder is sold in supermarkets and shops as it comes from the mill, but urucum is also available in the form of an oil which has been heated with urucum seeds in it, and sold with the seeds removed. Either way, it will add color and life to any dish. Urucum is commercially used in huge numbers of produced and prepared foods for its color, since it is a natural food and safe to eat. It is used in preference to chemical red dyes, both because of its safety and because consumers are aware of the dangers of chemical food colors and many avoid buying foods that contain them.  One of the most common uses of urucum worldwide is to give cheddar or cheddar-style cheeses their orange color.

In future posts, I'll be providing recipes that call for the use of urucum. Under the name aciote or annatto, the powder is easily found in ethnic markets in North America that cater to Caribbean, Mexican and other Latin American communities.

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