When I attended a Yucatan cooking class in Mexico, the chef informed us that oregano was a foundation spice in many of the dishes we were to prepare, he further admonished us that we needed to use only Mexican oregano and not the Mediterranean Greek variety. Huh? Where I grew up, oregano is oregano is oregano. But as I learned, that is certainly not the case. Regardless of the variety, this herb is no wallflower, its flavor is bold and assertive, and adds a distinctive element to any dish.
Mexican Oregano: This variety has a stronger flavor and odor than its Mediterranean counterpart. It is also less sweet than its counterpart and is more closely related to lemon verbena. In a pinch it can substitute for epazote leaves.
Mediterranean (Greek or Turkish) Oregano: The herb has been used since Roman times. It gained exponential popularity in the United States when Italy exposed us to a pie (pizza that is). It is related to the mint plant. The bitter taste of this herb is powerful, and an indication of the quality is if it numbs the tongue. Climate and soil play a significant role in its taste, with consensus being that the better quality plants are produced in warm environments.
Here’s another herb whose name can drive you nuts. For years both oregano and marjoram were known by the same name Origanum majorana L. Botanists keeping with this habit now identify oregano and marjoram as Majorana hortensis but quickly point out that this name really belongs to the “sweet” marjoram of the Mediterranean.
From the truly outstanding Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages
The Greek name origanon [ὀρίγανον] might well contain oros [ὄρος] “mountain”, and the verb ganousthai [γανοῦσθαι] “delight in”, because oregano prefers higher altitude in Mediterranean climate. Some Scandinavian names also contain an element of that kind: Norwegian bergmynte and Icelandic bergminta mountain mint and Finnish mäkimeirami “hill marjoram”; a parallel formation exists in Farsi, avishan kuhi [آویشن کوهی] mountain marjoram.
Names for Oregano in the large majority of European languages are very similar, or even the same: The spice is named oregano not only in English, but also in German, Danish, Polish and even Hebrew (written אורגנו). Minor spelling modification occur some other languages, e.g., Czech oregáno, Spanish orégano, Icelandic oreganó, Italian origano, Catalan orenga, Irish Gaelic oragán and Portuguese orégão. Only a few languages have the name significantly changed: Maltese riegnu and Greek rigani [ρίγανη], which was transferred to Albanian (rigon) and Bulgarian (rigan [риган]).
Many tongues name oregano as wild marjoram, e.g., German wilder Majoran, Swedish vild mejram, Hungarian vadmajoránna, Polish dziki majeranek, Provençal majurano fero and French marjolaine sauvage and marjolaine bâtarde (bastard marjoram). This is botanically incorrect, because although oregano and marjoram are indeed closely related, one cannot identify the former as the wild form of the latter.
First, according to Penzy’s Spices, Mexican and Mediterranean oregano are really two different plants. However because they are used in a similar fashion and have somewhat similar tastes, they got lumped together.
This is one herb where the dried version is more flavorful than the fresh.
People often substitute marjoram for Mediterranean oregano, because of the similar tastes as they are related. This substitute does in a pinch, but where both types of oregano are added towards the beginning of the preparation, to bring out its flavor; marjoram being more delicate is held off towards the end of the cooking process.
For Mediterranean Oregano (from The Herb Farm Cookbook – an oldie but a goodie)
Oregano and Roasted Garlic Pesto (~ 1c)
- 2 T oregano leaves
- ¼ c marjoram
- 1 c flat leaf parsley
- 1½T roasted garlic, mashed
- ¼ c walnut pieces, untoasted
- 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
- ½ tsp salt
- 6 T extra virgin olive oil
Put all ingredients, except the oil into a food processor and pulse until the mixture is finely ground. With the machine running, pour the oil in a steady stream. Stop to scrape down sides, and continue until the sauce is smooth and slightly creamy. Season to taste with salt. Can keep in the refrigerator for about a week.
For Mexican Oregano (from my beloved A Yucatan Kitchen by Loretta Scott Miller)
Recado Bistec (Oregano and Garlic Seasoning Paste)
Note: most cooks will tell you that oregano and garlic is a match made in heaven and this seasoning taste proves their point. Despite the name, this paste is not just for been and can be used on fish, pork, chicken, its only limited by the cook’s creativity.
- ¼ tsp ground clove
- 1 T black peppercorn
- 4 whole allspice
- 1 cinnamon stick broken into pieces
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 ½ T tasted and crushed Mexican oregano
- 1 head garlic, roasted and peeled
- ½ tsp salt
- mild vinegar
Grind all the spices in a spice grinder or with a mortal and pestle until very fine. Add the roasted garlic, salt and a drop or two of vinegar until it forms a paste. Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator until ready for use.
To use: dissolve in sour orange (Seville oranges, or a combination or orange and grapefruit juices)
Make about ½ cup.