Updated: Aug 15, 2021
If you’ve had a traditional Italian pizza or Italian food of any kind, you’ve probably tasted Oregano. What you might not know is that the Oregano in that pizza is Mediterranean oregano and that there is another variety known as Mexican Oregano. So, what’s the difference? Mediterranean Oregano has its origins in Greece and has varietals in other Mediterranean countries, specifically Italy, France, Israel, Morroco, and Turkey. The Oregano found in each of these countries does indeed come from the same plant species Origanum vulgarae, part of the mint family (Lamiaceae) but each kind has a slightly different flavor profile based on where the Oregano was grown. For example, the subspecies Origanum
onites (Greece, Turkey) and Origanum syriacum (West Asia) have similar flavors. Considered by many as the best all-purpose culinary form is Origanum hirtum (commonly known as Italian Oregano or Greek Oregano). Mexican Oregano, Lippia gavoeolens, is part of a different family of herbs altogether, the lemon verbena or vervain family (Verbenaceae).
Mediterranean v. Mexican Oregano
Mediterranean Oregano is thought of by many as “true” Oregano simply because it is so widely used and historically was in use long before the discovery of Mexican Oregano. Despite the fact that most people may associate Mediterranean Oregano with the Italian kitchen, this herb was originally grown in the mountains of Greece. Oregano means “joy of the mountains.” It is a combination of the ancient Greek word for mountain (oros) and the ancient Greek word for joy (ganos). The ancient Greeks believed that Oregano was a gift to them from the Goddess Aphrodite as a symbol joy growing in her garden. It was
the Romans who, after having adopted oregano because of its flavor and how easy it was to grow, helped spread the use of Oregano throughout Europe, Northern Africa, and China. But, Oregano didn’t make it to the US until soldiers discovered it in Italy during World War II. In contrast, Mexican Oregano came onto the American culinary scene in the 1970’s and 1980s when Mexican dishes were becoming increasingly popular. While it is not as well known as Mediterranean Oregano, Mexican Oregano definitely has its place in the American kitchen!
Wait... It's a medicine now too?
We normally think of the kitchen when we think of Oregano, but did you know it has medicinal purposes too? It was used by the ancient Greeks as an antidote for poisons, to combat sadness, encourage good health and bring good luck. Like the ancient Greeks, the ancient Egyptians also used it as an antidote for poison but they used it as a preservative as well. Traditional Chinese healers have also used Oregano for a variety of ailments for thousands of years and during the Medieval era, Oregano was used for just
about everything and anything.
Today, we can find Oregano used in oils, tinctures, perfumes, cosmetics, soaps, creams and
pharmaceuticals. Oregano can be sprinkled on food and cooked in recipes, consumed as oil drops, in pill form or as a tea, and used topically as a cream. Oregano oil has antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. The leaves of the Oregano plant are known to have bioactive and anti-oxidant compounds including rosmarinic acid, linalool, thymol, carvacrol, tannins, flavonoids, and triterpenes. Oregano is also known to contain iron, vitamins, calcium, copper, niacin, magnesium, and thiamine. Because of its medicinal properties, Oregano has been used to treat everything from abdominal bloating, cramps, heartburn, and flatulence to the common cold and flu to more complex medical conditions and conditions caused by oxidative stress including: allergies; arthritis; asthma; bronchitis; cancer; croup; diabetes headaches; heart disease; muscular degeneration; nausea, vomiting and diarrhea; ski infections, and urinary tract infections. Scientific research continues on the medicinal properties of this incredible herb including its role in weight loss! Considering all it has to offer, it may be worth your while to include this herb in your daily diet.
Considering all of the benefits Oregano has to offer, let’s get back to the kitchen…
A question that is frequently asked is if Mediterranean oregano can be used interchangeably with Mexican Oregano. Really, food preferences are an individual choice. Both types of Oregano are equally good, they are just different. Mediterranean oregano has a robust, savory, peppery flavor somewhat akin to majoram or rosemary, whereas Mexican oregano has a more woodsy, earthy flavor. Some believe Mexican Oregano has a more savory flavor, with a citrus accent that is more aromatic than that of it’s Mediterranean relative. One might use Mediterranean oregano when wanting to grill meats, make cream sauces and quiches, or even as topping for a salad. It is best in all Greek and Italian savory foods and savory dishes primarily because it pairs well with other herbs and spices commonly used in those foods such as basil, garlic, thyme, and parsley. Mexican oregano has a vibrant, citrusy tang, licorice flavor that is well suited for Mexican cuisine. It is excellent for flavoring beans, pork, salsas, chili dishes, strong meaty flavors, and anything tomato heavy or intensely spicy. Mexican oregano is sometimes used as a substitute for epazote in some Mexican recipes. It is probably best to stick with the specific oregano called out by particular recipe but if a specific type of oregano isn’t listed in the ingredients, then by all means experiment with both and find the flavor that suits your palette!