September 6, 2020

Experimenting with Cuban Oregano

I shook my head in amazement, as I climbed back to my feet. I had just been knocked over by the flavor blast from my first taste of Cuban oregano. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. Including herbs in my garden connects me with cultural and medicinal traditions that span centuries. And yet there are many I have never even heard of. Count Cuban oregano among the latter. It looks like a succulent with its fleshy leaves, but it tastes something like oregano and has a powerful aroma. Best of all, it grows very nicely in my well-drained, dry, sandy ground, while attracting no pests.

Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) is not a true oregano and is actually a member of the mint family. So the first question is whether it can be used in much the same way as common oregano. The answer is a resounding yes. You can use it to flavor tomato sauce for pizza and pasta. You can soak it in olive oil to make a classic vinaigrette. You can chop it very fine and add it as a topping for soup or stew. Chop it up with parsley for a fine garnish for hearty vegetables such as cauliflower, eggplant, or zucchini. Just remember to tread lightly, until you know how much to add. 

Given the fleshy quality of the leaf, I felt there must be other uses to consider for this potent herb. I cut up slivers of a large leaf to add to my salad. In such a small quantity, its lovely aroma gently permeates the bowl of greens and adds fun occasional bites of flavor. 

There is a huge, diverse world beyond the grocery store, but it takes some experimentation to learn how to cook with that diversity. Going by its name, I went looking for some Caribbean dishes that might make good use of Cuban oregano. My searches came up with a number of variations on black beans as well as a number of green pesto-like combinations. Another name for Cuban oregano is Indian Borage. Based on that name, I went looking for some Indian dishes. These searches led me to curries, chutneys, fritters, and drinks. Those last two - fritters and drinks - called out to me for exploration. 

The idea of basing a dish on something as simple as a single leaf lured me into making some fritters. If I cut the leaves leaving a bit of stem, I could hold on to the stem, while dipping the leaf in the batter. That sounded elegant. I am not a fan of deep-fried food, so I had no intention of truly deep frying anything. I would cook it more like home fries. I followed some advice about keeping the oil hot, but not too hot. I spiced up the batter a bit with some cumin, chili pepper, and turmeric. Then I dipped my first leaf, holding it by the stem. It left a silky coating over both surfaces of the leaf. I fried it for a minute on each side. 

Cuban oregano leaves dipped in batter and fried

I let the oil drain off the fritter and then took a bite. It tasted like fried dough, but each bite also released the aroma and fleshiness of the Cuban oregano. I liked that last part of the gustatory encounter. I experimented a bit with the thickness of the batter, the depth of the oil in the pan, and how long I cooked each side. I'm planning to try it again, tempura style, with a lighter batter. And maybe I'll deep fry some Seminole pumpkin flowers as well. I'm still not a fan of deep-fried food, but this was a fun activity. I'd love to do it again with children. It would be a little like messing around with play dough, but then you'd get to eat the finished product.

Cuban oregano leaf still green and pungent after frying

In the Indian state of Karnataka, they make a traditional yogurt drink with Cuban oregano. It is also described as an herbed buttermilk, a type of raita, or a cold soup. I am not a fan of savory drinks, but I have little experience with them, so I felt that I shouldn't rush to judgement. A yogurt based drink appealed to me. If I didn't like it as a drink, I could use it as a sauce or a soup base. Most recipes call for grinding roasted cumin, black peppercorns, and Cuban oregano leaves together with grated coconut, chilies, salt, yogurt, and water. In the recipes I found, there was wide variation in the proportion of leaves to yogurt, so I think there's lots of leeway with this concoction. I substituted dried forms of everything except the Cuban oregano leaves. After lightly frying the Cuban oregano with the cumin and black pepper, I blended all the ingredients together, adding water, until it reached a drinkable consistency. Awesome smells filled the kitchen. After wrapping their heads around how strong and novel the flavor was, my family all agreed that it tasted good. 

This yogurt based drink tasted good, but none of us really wanted to drink it straight up. We are not accustomed to such drinks. On the other hand, it was awesome as a sauce. My son poured it along with some salsa over nachos and was very pleased. I combined some of it with grated parmesan and pasta, and made the Cuban oregano version of macaroni and cheese. It tasted great and smelled even better. My creative juices were flowing, and I considered other beverage options. I added carbonated water to a small amount to see if it would be any good as a soda. It foamed up beautifully, but that was a tough sell. I added some simple syrup (water and sugar). This seemed comparable to an ice cream soda. Again, everybody said that they liked it, but nobody wanted to drink more of it. I took the remaining 2/3 of a cup of this herbal buttermilk, blended it with five bananas and some ice to make an herbal smoothie. It had a unique flavor, but it was not loved by all.

Cuban oregano buttermilk soda ??!

This type of experimenting helps me determine what I like and what I don't like about a new food. I now know that I feel the same way about Cuban oregano as I do about ginger. I really like a small amount. Both add a powerful, pungent punch. However, I find them overwhelming when there's even a smidgeon too much. In general, when I experiment with in-season produce, I can expand my straight-from-the-garden repertoire, so that I don't get bored. When presented with one hundred bananas, I want to have lots of ideas for how to use them. Not all experiments come up with winners, but they help me figure out if I like the food enough to bother with it. They also help me stretch my imagination to make a dish that I might never have thought of otherwise. Oregano may be a go-to herb in many kitchens, but in South Florida, it behooves us to consider Cuban oregano, because it grows so well here, even throughout the hot, humid summer.

If culinary uses aren't enough to get you growing Cuban oregano, there are a wide range of uses for this herb in folk medicine. I found a nice roundup of traditional uses and scientific research results. To summarize, it is used to treat conditions such as cold, cough, asthma, fever, and skin diseases. Scientists have studied Cuban oregano’s numerous pharmacological properties including antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, wound healing, anti-epileptic, larvicidal, antioxidant and analgesic activities. Unsurprisingly, we are still awaiting studies to evaluate human safety, even though it is already widely used. 

Cuban oregano shaded by calamondin above and frangipani from the side

Cuban oregano is an evergreen perennial herb that grows in the tropics and warmer regions. Mine does beautifully in partial to full shade with no irrigation. It is drought-tolerant. The first time I planted it, it died over the winter (thank you Joan R for gifting me cuttings more than once). A new plant made it through the next winter and has flourished ever since. It is a pretty plant, and in many gardens is grown for its appearance more than its use. You can root a new plant from a cutting. Mature plants can be divided. Gently lift the whole plant out of the ground and cut the root ball into two pieces with a sharp knife. Now you have two plants that you can replant.

Cuban oregano climbing a bamboo trellis, over 7 feet tall.
"It's a beast!"  Quote, plant, and photo courtesy Cissy Stanko.

For my friends in colder regions: Cuban oregano is a very common houseplant and fares well inside. If you want to grow it outside, realize that it is a tropical plant, winter hardy in USDA zones 10 and 11 only. In other growing zones, it needs to be brought indoors during the winter.

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