This was our Abuela's secret for very colorful dishes, so learn how to make it and always keep some aceite de bija (achiote oil) at hand.
Bija is one of my favorite ingredients and I've used it in several recipes. It's the best way to add color to a dish without altering its taste. Bija is one of our signature spices; it's inexpensive and widely available in the Dominican Republic, as well as being a very ancient ingredient in our cuisine.
What is bija?
Bija --scientific name Bixa orellana-- is a tree that grows locally; the seeds of its alien-looking fruit are used as coloring; it was used instead of tomato paste in pre-refrigeration times, as it has a very long shelf-life.
Bija, also known as anato, achiote -- and annatto in English -- is used throughout the Caribbean, where it has come to be known as "the poor man's saffron " (yeah, I know turmeric bears that title too, but it's hardly used around here).
The seeds can be ground, steeped in oil, or gently cooked in oil to extract the color. The fresher the seeds the more color they will yield. Its taste is gentle so it will hardly affect the final dish, letting the other spices and ingredients speak louder.
History of bija
Before the first European stepped off the boat in 1492, bija was already being used by the Tainos (bija is a Taino word ). They used it mainly to paint their bodies a reddish tone for decorative purposes and as a mosquito repellent.
Bija is now one of the most widely-used natural food coloring ingredients in the food industry and is generally considered very safe .
About this recipe
The bare basic traditional aceite de bija is just bija seeds steeped in oil. The seeds are left, and the bottle refilled with oil until it's time to change the seeds when no more color can be extracted. It is also made during the cooking process, as in this locrio de longaniza.
My recipe is just taking the simple achiote oil and adding some extra flavors (oregano, thyme, and garlic). This makes it perfect to add to rice dishes and even makes some colorful scrambled eggs.
Aceite de Bija Recipe (Achiote Oil)
- ½ cup bija seeds
- 1 head garlic, peeled, (optional)
- 1 bunch fresh oregano leaves, (optional)
- 1 bunch fresh thyme leaves, (optional)
- 2 cups olive oil
- Combining: Pour the bija seeds into a small saucepan. Add garlic, oregano, and thyme.Pour in the oil.
- Cooking: Cook over very low heat for one hour.Once the hour has passed, remove from the heat, and set aside to cool to room temperature. Sieve with a fine sieve to discard the solids.
- Storing: Pour into a clean bottle and store at room temperature. This has a long shelf life, but it's best used within the month.