Sunday, 26 February 2012

Keeping Traditions Alive: Making Achiote in the Boruca Indigenous Territory

Red Achiote Seeds (Photo by Eileen Delhi under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0)

I bet you wouldn’t argue with me if I were to say that our diets are based largely on plants. Then again, some people might. My (not so) little brothers might say that they almost never eat plants. But, they would be wrong. Even foods that we think have nothing to do with plants often do. Take cheddar cheese, for example. The ingredient that makes this food orange comes from a plant called Achiote.
The Achiote Plant (Photo by Joel Abroad under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0)
Achiote is the name for a neotropical plant; the same name is also used to describe the natural food colouring that is extracted from its seeds. You may also know it by the name Anatto or by its Nahuatl name Achiotl. Achiote has been well known in the Americas for millennia. For example, Indigenous peoples used achiote to dye textiles, to colour food, and to treat fever, parasites, and even snakebites.

If Achiote’s historic legacies or its role in making cheese ‘cheddar’ aren’t enough to spark your interest in this plant, maybe the following story will:

I’ve recently been making contacts to find a potential site for my research on the use of forest plants in Costa Rica. As a result, last week I was invited to visit Boruca, a small town in the mountains of southern Costa Rica found within the Boruca Indigenous Territory. People living in Boruca are extremely knowledgeable about forests and their ancestors have been using forest plants for millennia. When I stepped off the bus Manuel, a Boruca resident, greeted me. Manuel graciously dedicated his day to teach me about the plants of the Boruca Territory.
The Town of Boruca
We spent the day walking and learning about foods, dyes, and construction materials, all of which were derived from plants. We got slightly carried away learning about plants and I realized I had missed the last bus out of Boruca. Manuel suggested I stay the night and he directed me to a farmer who often had a spare bed for visitors. Staying the night in a new town was not a first for me, but knocking on a complete stranger’s door to ask for a spare bed was!

Lisbeth, a farmer and a Boruca indigenous person, quickly welcomed me to stay the night. I realized Lisbeth had to get my room ready, and this meant taking her away from her gardening, something she did alongside her daughter, her teenage granddaughter, and her three year-old grandson. Although she insisted my staying was no problem at all, the least I could do to lessen my burden was to jump right into the gardening. I wasn’t quite sure what I would be getting into, but as I noticed everyone’s bright red-orange fingertips, I guessed we were working with the achiote plant.

As soon as I sat down on the grass I was handed a bowl, a stick, and a prickly branch of achiote (see below). The first step in preparing achiote is to collect the seeds. To do so, you pop open each prickly achiote seed pod and scoop out the seeds. In the picture, you can see the red pulp that surrounds these tiny achiote seeds; it is something like the pulp that covers a peach pit but quite a bit smaller. Scraping out the red seeds was easy, but Lisbeth’s three year-old grandson quickly showed me it required some skill in choosing the right or good seeds. This little guy quickly became my assistant passing me the ‘best’ seed pods he could find.
Prickly Achiote Seed pods Filled with Red Seeds (Photo by Joel Abroad under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0)

As we all sat together sacando el achiote, Lisbeth’s granddaughter explained that we would fill one or two gallon buckets from our pile of hundreds of seedpods. Even though this seemed like a lot of seeds, Lisbeth’s granddaughter informed me that all a couple buckets would only amount to a few baby food jars worth of achiote. I also learned that this was a lengthy process. Lisbeth began to harvest the achiote branches on Wednesday. It was now Saturday and we were only halfway through. To make a few jars of achiote would take at least a week.

For Lisbeth, making achiote is not a business. She explained that commercially processed achoite is available in small jars at every corner store for less than a couple dollars. Because processing achiote is a time-consuming process, Lisbeth would not receive a price worth her time and expertise. I soon realized that Lisbeth makes achiote for fun. She gives her homemade achiote as gifts to her family and friends. Lisbeth also told me she would not think of using store-bought achiote because it is processed and full of additives. When I asked her how many people in Boruca produce achiote, she said that although many people did so 20-30 years ago, now she’d be surprised if any one else did it at all.

Does the continuity of the ancient practice of preparing achiote make a difference in the grand scheme of things? Lisbeth’s 17 year-old granddaughter, Karina, told me that she thought it did. She told me she enjoys helping her grandma make achiote and, most importantly, she loves its natural flavour. This flavour, she told me, is nothing like the achiote you can buy in the store. Karina was eager to list all the foods her family prepares use natural achiote, including picadillos (a type of vegetable stir-fry), grilled fish, and tamales. Karina’s pride in her family’s natural cooking was unmistakable as she handed me my dinner and asked me to try some rice, beans, and potatoes seasoned with achiote, “…todo producido aqui!” (all produced right here!).

I was inspired by the sense of pride Lisbeth and her family showed in keeping achiote-making alive. Participating in the activity helped me to gain a deeper respect for the plants and cultures we share the land with. I was particularly moved by Lisbeth’s grandaughter’s vision. How many times have we heard or said, “you know the youth today, they don’t appreciate food/work/tradition like we did in our day”? Here in Boruca, there are youth that do appreciate growing their own food, cooking naturally, and carrying on family traditions. Through this appreciation for tradition, these Boruca youth are keeping their ancestors' knowledge and practices alive.

The real names of the people mentioned in this blog have been changed to respect anonymity. 


  1. Thanks for this informative post. Good luck with your work.

  2. Hi Ehsan, thanks for reading! I'm not sure if you have used achiote before, but its colour is similar to saffron; however, the flavour is quite distinct. Hope all is well back in Winnipeg.

  3. Jennifer Marshall14 March 2012 at 21:37

    Loved this post Liv!!! It reminds me of research that came out of rural India (not sure where) that found the quality of life of women actually went down when wells were installed to shorten the walking distance required to collect water. The women loved the walk as it provided them with time to connect with their peers and support each other through various problems or quandries.

    I am SO EXCITED to read more of your posts!! Keep 'em coming!!!

  4. Hi Jenn, thank you for the interesting parallel to women's water collection in India. It is an important reminder that activities, such as plant harvesting or water collection, are often more complex than we may view them from the outside in. In my research, I'm looking forward to learning more about how conections to places and foods are important, not only for subsistence, but for social and cultural well-being.

  5. New Diet Taps into Pioneering Plan to Help Dieters LOSE 15 Pounds in Only 21 Days!