Oregano is like your Greek uncle Stavros, or your Italian cousin Baldo: Big, strapping, muscular, full of the joy of life, and ready to do the (culinary) heavy lifting!
Oregano is the “Oh!” in oh so many distinctive Italian, Greek, Turkish, Moroccan and Mexican dishes. Another member of the mint family, it doesn’t taste anything like mint. It’s more like marjoram’s stronger, swarthier cousin. (The two are often confused.)
Fresh, oregano is sweet-to-pungent, with a very mild peppery bite, and an herbal finish. Oregano is more mild fresh, and intensifies when dried, if from a warm climate. In colder climates, the flavor becomes more muted. It compliments the flavor of tomato exceptionally well. It’s essential oils are easily transported by common fats in meats, and vegetable oils.
Oregano grows wild in a range of warm climes throughout Western, and Southwestern, Eurasia, and the Mediterranean. It grows in colder climates, but is more of an annual.
The word oregano derives from the Greek ‘Oros,’ mountain, and ‘Ganos,’ joy. Oregano translates to “mountain of joy.” The goddess of love, Aphrodite, is believed to have bestowed the herb upon the Greeks. They’re the first culture known to have used it culinarily.
The Romans, great imitators of the Greeks, first popularized oregano throughout what is now modern Italy. The herb was easy to find in the coastal regions, and domesticate. Cooks for the Roman Legions could find it wild, moving North, until the weather became too cold to support it. It entered into other cultures’ cuisines through the Roman conquests of Europe, Northern Africa, and the Levant.
Oregano was one of the spices that traveled South, along the Spice Road, to China, most likely from North Africa, but there it seems to have been relegated, with turmeric, to the role of digestive tea.
We suspect that the Spanish brought oregano into North America with the Conquistadores. It didn’t invade the United States until the 1880s, with the great Italian migration, where four million Italians migrated, until the 1920’s. Coastal Southern Italians brought the herb with them. It became more widely used after Italian cuisine popularized, post World War II. Many Italian GIs brought back the herb from the military campaign in Southern Italy, opening up “pizza” restaurants.
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