It is a northeastern favourite found in the wild and is cooked in a variety of ways, as a salad, but most often as a vegetable, so here’s a recipe of dhekia xaak with duck eggs
Politicians fought each other and created borders. First there was a huge swath of land linked intimately to the northeast of Indian mainland.
Then as the years went by, politicians created India and Burma. Then within India, gradually, they created Assam, Manipur, Meghalay, Nagaland, etc.
But not much of our linkages went. Northeast India and South East Asia share so much in common. That is because much of the ethnic groups of the northeast India migrated from South East Asia at a time when there was no passport and no visas.
And they brought with them their songs and dances and religions and cultures and food… like the Fiddlehead Fern, or what we in Assam call dhekia xaak.
Go to any Godhuli Bazaar, or the local evening markets in Assam, and you will see and be generously enticed by the aroma of the fern that is called Niruo in Nepali.
It is popular all across the northeast, as well as in Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia… as far east as China!
Fiddlehead ferns are the young shoots of edible ferns. They resemble the spiral end of a fiddle, for which they are named, and they taste somewhat similar to asparagus-okra-spinach, but their texture is slightly crunchy.
They are highly perishable and should be cooked within 48 hours after they are picked
And like many other food items in the northeast, this plant is best found in the wild.
Fiddlehead ferns are one of the most ancient edibles on the planet. They can be found in many different shapes and colours, widely available in northeast India as well as in South East Asia.
India’s northeast is the gateway to South East Asia: Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Bhutan and China.
Food habits are common here with other South Asian countries. They all offer similar types of taste with a wide range of unique flavours and ingredients of fermented nature.
Northeastern food finds strong resemblance with the food of South East Asia, which are bland and hot, and strange but true, without the use of much oil or spice.
There is a custom in Assam that during Rongali Bihu people are supposed to eat 100 varieties of vegetables. Collecting “Xaak” (edible leafy plants) growing in the wild on fields and by the road side is pretty much common
In typical strong aromatic food, the use of bamboo shoots, curries and chutneys are widespread.
Bamboo shoot is one common item used in most dishes to give that sour taste. And of course, we are crazy for the big sized lemons.
The hot chillies, garlic and ginger are enough to ignite the hotness of the platter.
The northeast region is popular for the world’s hottest chilli, the Raja Mirchi or Bhut Jhalokia.
Lots of green vegetables, along with fresh water fish, pork and stream rice make a delightful northeast dish. North eastern families use mustard oil as the cooking medium.
The northeast region is geographically and climatically very suitable for the cultivation of various green leafy vegetables.
“Xaak” is green leafy vegetable, which is most common side dish in every meal. This is a land of many wild edible plants; some are common name and recipes are different.
There is a custom in Assam that during Rongali Bihu people are supposed to eat 100 varieties of vegetables.
Collecting “Xaak” (edible leafy plants) growing in the wild on fields and by the road side is pretty much common.
Dhekia Xaak” (Fiddlehead fern) is very popular in this region. Simply cooked and seasoned or used to make tenga (a sour curry), this is universally popular in the northeast.
Interestingly, the fern is widely popular across the country.
In the Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh, it is known as lingri and is famously used to make a pickle called lingri ka achaar.
In the Kangra Valley, it is called lungdu.
In Chamba as well as Jammu & Kashmir, it is known as kasrod.
In Garhwal of Uttarakhand, it is called languda and eaten as a vegetable.
In Darjeeling and Sikkim regions, it is called niyuro and is common as a vegetable side dish, often mixed with local cheese.
But it is a delicate plant. The shoots are in their coiled form only for a few days. They must be collected before they open to become beautiful delicate leaves, but are not eatable.
Only grown in the spring and monsoon time in the woods, shady swamps, riverbanks, and damp fields, they can also be purchased from the local markets in bundles.
There are many ways of cooking it, like the Thai non-veg salad made with shrimps, or the Naga dish.
The way we Assamese do it is this:
You would need 4/5 bunches of dhekia (approximate 1kg leaf), four duck eggs, two fresh green chillies, four garlic pods chopped, four table spoons of mustard oil, some turmeric and a piece of a large lemon.
Clean, wash and cut the fern shoots in to three cm pieces. Only the very tender stems can be eaten. Heat the oil and then add garlic and chilly, stirring till it is brown and a strong flavour comes out.
Add the dhekia. Keep stirring, add salt and turmeric.
Squeeze the lemon section. Cook covered in low heat till Dhekia is tender.
Pour the eggs over it. Mix well. Remove as soon as the egg is well blended, and Lo! Your dhekia xaak is ready.
Phorographs by Partha Pratim Sharma
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Partha Pratim Sharma is based in Mangaldai, a small town and district headquarter of Darrang. He is a sustainable designer, artist, traveller and a farmer. He is known for his exemplary work on magazine designs, but has now settled to work in his studio, which hes designed in Assam-type architecture