Posted by: oysterculture | May 20, 2009

Special Ingredients: Oregano

Mediterranean vs Mexican oregano

Mediterranean vs Mexican oregano

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.



  1. Great info! I actually grow all of the above. The weird thing is that I’ve noticed that I don’t enjoy the flavor of fresh marjoram. I love all oreganos, but marjoram has that dish soap flavor for me (I don’t have that issue with cilantro though). My Mex. oregano plant isn’t looking so great right now, and I’m hoping it starts looking better soon.

  2. I didn’t know about the two varieties of oregano and the relation to marjoram. Very interesting! I love to use oregano in my cooking!

  3. The balsamic is interesting to add to the pesto. Great touch!

  4. you’ve just reminded me that I need to get some oregano. I ran out the other day and totally forgot about it! LOL. Though I had no idea that there were two kinds. I usually just get whatever’s at the market. That’s interesting to know.

  5. Oregano is one of my favorite spice and I use it so often especially in meat dishes, chicken dishes, some savory foods, even at breakfast on sliced tomatoes or I can sprinkle some oregano in a small bowl full of natural olive oil, and so many other dishes. Oregano means “kekik” in Turkish. Is it same ith thyme? When I look up to the dictionary, I see they have the same Turkish meaning.

  6. Zerrin – from what I read, oregano has the same problem as the nigella, multiple spices referred to by similar names. Just to make it interesting. It is not the same as thyme. This link has a good description the author states that in the Mediterranean a distinction between herbs in the mint family is not necessarily the case, as it sounds like from your example.

    Jenn- so that begs the question, what kind of oregano are you going to buy?

    DuoDishes – this cookbook is a gem with some very creative ideas.

    Natasha – Oregano is a must in the kitchen as far as I am concerned.

  7. Oregano pesto, huh? That’s a new one on me. But since I love traditional pesto so much, I’m gonna have to give this one a whirl.

  8. I am with Lisaiscooking, fresh oregano has always been an off taste for me, until the past 10 years, and I love dried in Greek dishes, and many other things now. I think my mom over did it in foods as a kid. That seemed like the one thing people always had in the cabinet during the 70’s and on, and was used mostly in Italian cooking, or at least my recollection in the south…

    Funny so many things are said to me as a chef, but the one thing is people go straight to their spice racks and begin to ask me “what the heck is this used for, or that…”, so maybe I can send them over here now 🙂 I love the pesto, and will try and fit it into my cooking for my culinary kids!

    I love my ‘Encyclopedia of Spices’, by Morris & Mackley, and a few others. Oh, I also want to travel to Oaxaca, Mexico one day and learn more about their cooking as Rick Bayless is one of my favorite Mexican Chefs…

  9. Such good info (as always!). I’ve seen Mexican oregano before and never bought it because I just didn’t know what it was. I’d be interested to try some of the high-quality tongue-numbing stuff!

  10. I was recently reading online about some spices and herbs, then I looked up what oregano translates to in my language. Never heard… But I tasted it back in the US, on pizza! We’ve got some herb, spices and oil shops here – I plan to ask, they should have.

  11. In Israel Majorana syriaca is a very popular herb used in cooking and as a medicinal plant. As you mentioned, it used to be called Origanum and there is still alot of confusion regarding the name. I like the Mexican oregano mix, zesty!

  12. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for the input – I find it interesting that we might all be talking about the same herb but using entirely different names, or have the same name for entirely different herbs. Makes for some interesting conversations =).

  13. Have never tried Mexican oregano before. But hopefully soon – I just printed out the recipe for recado bistec!

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