If you said oregano you are correct!
While Italian and Greek immigrants had always been using oregano in their cooking, it was the pizza craze that created the huge increase in demand for oregano. Reflecting a confusion that continues to this day, oregano was not mentioned by that name in cookbooks–it was referred to as “wild marjoram,” but after the 1940s it became known as “the pizza spice.” It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when pizza was uncommon here, but it was American soldiers returning from Italy after World War II that put that particular food staple on the map.
Oregano remains one of the top ten most used spices in America but surprisingly, there is an even bigger commercial market for oregano now in the form of its essential oil as a component in perfumes and soaps, and particularly men’s fragrances. It’s used in the pharmaceutical industry as an anti-inflammatory agent for the skin and is also rich in several healthy minerals including iron, manganese and potassium.
Answering the question, “What is oregano?” is more complicated than you might think. Some say the name oregano is derived from the Greek, meaning “joy of the mountain.” While the word appears now to most likely have derived from a North African language, this sentiment does reflects its native habitat growing wild on the hillsides of Greece and other Mediterranean countries. Over the centuries, three or four dozen different varieties of this aromatic herb from the mint family have been developed to suit different preferences. These cultivars can vary in taste and intensity from tongue-numbingly spicy to completely mild and sweet. As with wine, climate and soil composition can also have a huge effect on its nature and can create even bigger differences in tastes than between species. When you buy dried oregano at the market it is probably a blend of different Italian-grown varieties. Oregano has also been closely associated with the herb marjoram, and depending on market prices marjoram may have occasionally been packaged and sold as oregano in the past. To add to the confusion, the herb called “Mexican oregano” is actually from a completely different botanical family related to verbenas. It has a taste similar to savory and lacks the piney hint present in mediterranean oregano. Use this strong, peppery herb when you are making your own chili powder blend, and try not to substitute if a recipe specifically calls for it.
Aside from being an essential flavor in Italian cooking, especially in the south, oregano is the herb of choice in Greek cuisine where it is used to flavor grilled or roasted vegetables, fish and meats and with lemon provides the signature flavoring for the classic Greek salad dressing. The Romans are said to have spread the use of oregano throughout Europe and North African. It made its way to China via the spice road and wound up in the kitchens of cooks in the Phillipines where it is used to impart flavor and eliminate unpleasant odors when boiling water buffalo.
Using fresh oregano will give you the best flavor and it will last in your refrigerator wrapped in damp paper towel up to a week. Try growing a pot on your window sill and you will have it available all year round. You can also freeze fresh oregano just as it is, with no loss of flavor.
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