Originally from Central and South America, annatto seeds grow on the achiote tree. The Spanish were the first Europeans to discover these seeds after establishing colonies in these native growing regions, and from there introduced them to their Asian colonies like the Philippines. Over the generations, other Asian cuisines discovered their uses.
The seed itself is stored in a spiky, funky-looking pod, and is triangular and reddish-brown. While it does have some flavor and aromatic properties, this annatto seed is primarily used as a coloring agent. In European and Euro-American products, it’s particularly prevalent as a natural way to color orange cheeses — almost all of them are otherwise naturally white! In Asian cuisines, it’s famously used to color Chinese barbecue sauce, among other foods.
As for annatto’s flavor, it’s typically described as being a little bit peppery but also having a mild, nutty sweetness to it. None of these flavors are overpowering, but they can add those essences to a dish.
Whether for food coloring or as a mild spice, you can find annatto seeds in Uwajimaya’s grocery department.