Rongali Bihu 2024: 'Ekho Ek Bidh Xaak' And Its Significance

An integral part of any traditional Assamese thali are its ‘xaak’ or saag; from Lai and Paleng Xaak to Dhekia and Manimuni, Assamese cuisine boasts a large selection of indigenous leafy greens which are pivotal to Rongali Bihu, the harvest festival. 

Bihu marks the onset of the Assamese New Year and the arrival of spring. Among the various customs and rituals associated with Bihu, the tradition of ‘akho-ek-bidh xaak’ or '101 Xaak' is deeply intertwined with the food traditions of its agrarian communities which have been adopted across the state.

The practice of gathering '101 Xaak' is rooted in both spiritual and culinary significance. On the eve of Bihu, families embark on a quest to collect 101 different varieties of leafy greens from fields, forests, and gardens. From the peppery notes of mustard greens to the earthy richness of spinach, each xaak brings its own unique essence to the Bihu feast. However, the ritual has changed somewhat in the face of modernity and urbanised set-ups. 

“When I was growing up in Guwahati in the eighties, this ritual used to be a really significant one. Collecting the xaak was a key part of bihu; of course, 101 varieties is a stretch, so we would try to collect as many. But the idea was to include as many greens as we can in our meals,” says home chef Baishali Sinha. 

“Every herb has some medical value or dietary benefit; like Matikaduri, which is an indigenous green known to prevent urinary tract infection, similarly Bhedailota Paat or skunk wine is known to treat gastric issues. These food traditions are actually rooted in science because they encourage the inclusion of seasonal food in our diets, which have a higher concentration of nutrients,” she adds.

Upasana Pathak, who runs the Guwahati-based home kitchen The Chopping Board also agrees with this aspect. “Dhekia and laai are the most commonly used varieties in Assam’s kitchens. Then we have radish leaves. Dhekia is seasonal so this is the season for growing dhekia, which is why people prefer eating it fresh,” says Pathak.

Sourcing the xaak is also a growing issue, as the growth and availability of several varieties are dwindling with rising urbanisation. “I think we don’t talk about this enough. When I was a kid, tengesi xaak, khutura xaak, duroon bon etc were found quite easily, in bazaars and they were grown in and around the city. Now, we only see 10-12 varieties being sold in the market,” shares Sinha.

The vanishing greens

“When I was a kid eating greens was something we had to do, especially during daytime. We would have at least one xaak in every meal. Now I would say that has changed somewhat, with more people leaning towards meat and contemporary recipes which have no use of indigenous produce,” Pathak says.

While brahmi or dhekia are commonly available owing to their popularity, certain varieties of xaak like tengesi tenga and Ponou nuwa xaak are difficult to spot, despite their health benefits. “If you look closely, greens like dhekia which is also known as fiddlehead greens and sojina paat etc are found in markets quite easily. But greens which are native to Assam and not grown outside the state are not to be found, at least not in most markets. So, when you’re trying to source xaak for Bihu, you can get maybe 3-4 types, whereas when we were kids we would see families cooking 40-50 varieties of xaak!” Sinha remarks.

Another reason for this shift is the lack of backyards, feels Sinha. With rapid urbanisation, standalone houses are being remade into apartments or commercial buildings and the old school backyard is slowly disappearing. “Our backyards would tend to have fertile soil because natural food waste would nourish the soil and we would see greens and smaller veggies growing there. In fact, in bigger backyards, we would see certain kinds of low-maintenance xaak growing in damp spots, near pipes or drainage systems. But we don’t really have these smaller gardens in our homes anymore,” she points out.

However, there’s always hope, feels Sinha, especially since new-age chefs are consistently trying to bring back the use of local produce. “I think younger chefs are bringing back the use of native produce and exploring ways to use it in modern recipes, I think that’s good news,” says Sinha.