Achiote-Seared Shrimp with Quick Habanero-Pickled Onion

This image courtesy of Professor Paul Elledge

Achiote, that earthy-orange seed with the earthy-floral aroma, stains so much food in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula the color of glowing embers and anoints it with a fragrance that reminds me of the limestone beneath the region’s shallow soil and tropical flowers and the jungle thicket that protects them. Many are introduced to its uniqueness as the marinade that makes pork pibil the delicious mouthful that it is, or as the stuff that’s painted on split-open fish but shielded from direct fire by banana leaves. While splitting a fish might be more than some cooks want to tackle, cooking shrimp (or scallops, if those are more appealing to you) is child’s play. And with so many Mexican groceries dotting our North American landscape, little boxes of achiote (already ground to a paste with garlic, the typical host of spices, a little something tangy) can be an easy pantry staple. Go ahead: buy a bunch of boxes when you see them (or order them online). They keep well on a pantry shelf for 6 months or longer With achiote paste on hand, you can have these very delicious, very Yucatecan-tasting shrimp with spicy. Half-pickled onions on the table in jiffy. In the winter: I bring the preparation inside, sautéing the shrimp, rather than grilling.

NotesWorking Ahead: The marinade can be made early in the day it’s used: marinate the shrimp within an hour of grilling. The onions can be made a day or two ahead.


Cooking Methodgrilling


Total Timeunder 1 hour

Make Ahead RecipeYes

OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Family Get-together

Recipe Coursemain course

Dietary Considerationegg-free, gluten-free, peanut free, soy free, tree nut free



  • ½ of a small (3½-ounce) package prepared achiote paste (such as Yucateco, La Anita or Marin brand)
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • ½ cup fresh lime juice
  • ¼ cup fresh orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar (apple cider vinegar works well here)
  • Salt
  • 1¼ pounds large shrimp, peeled, leaving tail and final shell segment intact and deveined if you like
  • 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 small fresh habanero chile (or other fresh chile), stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced
  • A little olive or vegetable oil
  • Roughly chopped cilantro or parsley, for garnish


  1. Marinate the shrimp. Break the achiote paste into a blender jar and add the garlic, half of the lime juice, the orange juice, vinegar and ½ teaspoon salt. Blend until smooth. Pour over the shrimp, stirring to coat well, cover and refrigerate 30 minutes.

  2. Prepare the onions. In a small bowl, combine the onion, habanero (or as much of it as you think you’ll like), the remaining lime juice and 1 scant teaspoon salt. Cover and let stand until the shrimp is ready. (If working ahead, the onions may be stored in the refrigerator, covered, for several days.)

  3. Grill and serve the shrimp. Turn on a gas grill to medium-high or light a charcoal grill and let the coals burn until quite hot and covered with white ash.

  4. Thread the shrimp on skewers (if using bamboo skewers, it’s best to first soak them in water for a few minutes), leaving most of the marinade in the bowl. Scrape the leftover marinade into a small saucepan, bring to a simmer over medium heat, and stir until darker in color and thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in enough water to bring the sauce to the consistency of a light cream soup. Taste and season with more salt if you think necessary. Cover and keep warm over low heat.

  5. Spritz or brush the shrimp with oil, then lay on the hot fire and close the grill. After 2 or 3 minutes, when the shrimp are browned on one side, turn the skewers over and cook the other side: it usually takes a minute or so longer, depending on the exact heat of your fire, to cook the shrimp until just the slightest hint of translucency remains in the center of each piece.

  6. Lay the grilled shrimp skewers on a serving platter (or pull the shrimp from skewers before piling on the platter), drizzle with the sauce and sprinkle with chopped cilantro or parsley Serve with the spicy pickled onions.

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