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Atsuete: Plant Food Color

Updated on February 9, 2011


My grandma had long been using it in almost all her secret Asian dish recipes. She liked most of her food dishes red. She would ask me or our helper, Kardo, climb up the Atsuete tree in the backyard and harvest some Atsuete fruit.

Annatto Seeds

The fruit cannot be eaten raw. It's solely for coloring food dishes red. The fruit looks like rambutan, an Asian sweet fruit that tastes like lychee. It's covered with a red skin shell with lots of curly strands. That's how the Atsuete fruit or Annatto also looks like, but the skin shell is crunchy. You break it in half and find several compartments inside clustered with red Atsuete seeds.

My grandma soaked the seeds in clean water and later rinsed them well (rubbing them with the thumb and forefinger), making sure they gave out all the red color they had. Then the red colored water is poured over whatever food dish she was cooking.

Other Coloring Purposes

Atsuete or Roucou seeds can also be used for other coloring purposes. For instance, use it to color your skin temporarily during a presentation, like a tribal dance or cultural performance, or color your hair for whatever purpose.

I remember using the seeds on our lips to achieve a lipstick effect, even if we were all boys. At least, the use of Atsuete rather than a real lipstick made everything look tolerable. Kids can have lots of fun with it, since it easily washes off from the skin. Well, on second thought, we did have a bit difficulty sometimes washing it off our fingers. Perhaps, it was because it was our our fingers that did the color extraction.

Red Pork Recipe

However, we all loved it when used for cooking pork. One special recipe of my grandma was Red Pork Adobo. In summary, here's how it's cooked:

Tenderize a half kilo of pork in some vinegar, about a half cup of water, crushed garlic, a little brown sugar, and some chopped onions. Put in some Laurel leaves, too, and black pepper. Add a bit of salt to taste. Do not stir. Stirring will make the dish too sour. Let the simmering do all the stirring work. Simmer until pork is tender and cooked. Then pour in an Atsuete-colored one-fourth cup of water. Simmer for a minute more.

Then, saute preserved shrimp (bagoong alamang) in some oil, crushed garlic, and chili in a pan. Use this as a side dish for the Red Pork Adobo.

Careful About Allergies

This plant food color, however, can cause some allergies, although food authorities like the FDA do not consider it a major allergen. To be sure, do not use it everyday. In the case of my grandma loving it mixed with a lot of her recipes, no-one among us experienced any allergy due to it. It made food look so yummy and that, I think, was the side effect to our appetites.

With painting the skin red with it, we never had any allergy experience, either. We folks from deep Asia do not seem to easily get affected by Atsuete allergies, if any. But we did fear it tainting our white school uniforms.

Any Healing or Health Benefits?

Not many studies on the healing or health benefits of Atsuete or Annatto have been made. It's not clear if this plant food color gave some nutritional benefits. But it often acts as an appetizer. The red color it lends on food dishes still makes us eat more.

Of course, tomato sauce is much better for red food coloring than Atsuete, because tomato sauce has many health benefits, like Vitamin C and lycopene. But in deep Asia where most people economize even in food ingredients, Atsuete is commonly used to make dishes like spaghetti redder. This plant food color is thus a big help in poor families' kitchens, especially in karinderias or makeshift eateries.

Yet, who knows. One day some food scientists might discover the health and healing benefits of Atsuete and recommend it for healthier food dishes.


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