Oregano is generally classified in two categories: Mediterranean and Mexican. Despite the shared name and similar flavors, these are two completely different species.
• Mediterranean oregano: A member of the mint family, Mediterranean oregano grows throughout the region, from Greece to Italy, Spain, Turkey, Egypt, and Morocco. It's also known as wild marjoram. Oregano from these areas is robust in flavor, though different varieties may be more bitter, sweet, or peppery than others. Greek oregano tends to be the most savory and earthy, while Italian is milder and Turkish is more pungent. Used fresh or dry, Mediterranean oregano is the choice for dishes from this region, tomato sauces, pizzas, grilled meats, and other dishes with strong flavors.
• Mexican oregano: Mexican oregano is a relative of lemon verbena. Native to Mexico, it also grows in Central and South America and is sometimes referred to as Puerto Rican oregano. Although this herb shares the basic pungent flavor of Mediterranean oregano, it also has notes of citrus and mild licorice. Used fresh or dry, Mexican oregano pairs well with chile peppers, cumin, and paprika. Add it to Latin American dishes, Tex-Mex chili, and salsa.
In all cases, it is really worth it to grow your own varieties or seek out good quality dried oregano. As we learned when we tasted the oregano our friend found on his travels, an herb that sometimes seems rather common and mundane can actually be quite complex and extraordinary!
Related: What's the Difference? Paprika
(Image: Emily Ho)