A pungent and popular herb that is central to many dishes of the Mediterranean region. It belongs to the Lamiaceae family, along with many other important culinary herbs, including the very closely related marjoram.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is native to the Mediterranean and has been an important cooking ingredient for centuries in the cuisines of Greece, Egypt and Italy, among many others. The plant is a small, sprawling perennial, growing to a height of 60 cm (25 in), with rounded green leaves, 1-2 cm long, covered with a very fine down. Oregano blooms with tiny white flowers.
The fresh herb has a wonderful savoury aroma and a floral, peppery taste. Used fresh, oregano is a delightful ingredient in Mediterranean salads, especially when used in combination with basil. The herb has a strong flavour association with tomatoes, and some fresh leaves scattered through a tomato based sauce towards the end of cooking gives it a sublime lift.
It is through the dried version however, that most cooks will know this beautiful herb. Oregano is one of the few herbs that actually increases in pungency and flavour giving properties once dried, some others include bay and thyme. By far the best dried oregano to buy is Greek in origin. It is sold in plastic bags still on the stem and is known as rigani. Eschew any dried oregano that is sold powdered in little jars, as the flavour will disappoint. They herb will stand up to prolonged cooking in the dried form and can be confidently added at the start of a dish. Dried oregano has long been associated with many tomato based sauces from Italy, especially those used on pizza, and a crumbling of good quality dried oregano is considered de rigueur in a classic Greek salad.
Both fresh and dried oregano has a close affinity with red meat dishes, particularly lamb and is always a welcome addition to stuffing for a poultry dish
The name oregano comes from two Greek words, oros and ganos, roughly meaning "joy of the mountain", a reference to the herbs habit of growing wild on rocky Greek hillsides. *
* Unfortunately, as picturesque as this story is, Gritchka has kindly pointed out that it is a case of widely spread folk etymology.