Spice support: the differences between Mexican and Mediterranean oregano


The Latin name for Mediterranean oregano (on the right, above) provides a clue as to how ubiquitous it has become in kitchens all over the world. Origanum vulgare -vulgare coming from the Latin word vulgus, meaning 'the common people' or 'the masses' - is a pungent herb related to mint that is used extensively in Mediterranean cooking, particularly in Italian cuisine. The first part of its name derives from the Greek for "joy of the mountains", according to The Encyclopedia of Spices and Herbs

Oregano is one of the few herbs where the dried version is at least equal, if not superior, to the fresh. The flavor of Mediterranean oregano - sharp, warm, and with just a hint of sweetness - pairs well with its botanical cousin marjoram (oregano is often referred to as wild marjoram), as well as sage, basil, thyme, garlic, and onion. Subvarieties of oregano differ ever so slightly, with the Greek variety tending toward more savory and earthy, the Italian version being the mildest and Turkish the most pungent. 

Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens), while similar in flavor, is botanically distinct. A member of the verbena family, the shrub is native to the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central America. As such, it is used liberally in Mexican cuisine in sauces, stews, soups and other long-cooking dishes. It shares two aromatic compounds - thymol and carvacrol - with Mediterranean oregano, so the aroma and taste are similar. Mexican oregano differs in that it contains citrus notes not found in its Mediterranean counterpart. 

Since the two herbs share a few aromatic compounds, most cooks agree that you can substitute one for the other, keeping in mind the differences noted above. Sources disagree as to which version is more pungent, but since other variables such as growing conditions, storage, and quality also affect this attribute, without a side-by-side comparison it is difficult to state which possesses a stronger flavor. Both herbs are common and therefore relatively inexpensive, bolstering the argument to have both on hand. 

1 Comment

  • ellabee  on  8/8/2017 at 12:02 PM

    Thanks very much for including the botanical names here; it's a vital piece of info for people who want to grow specific herbs. And thanks in general for this series of posts, a valuable addition to EYB.

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