Speaking Chic

Fashion, food and all things beautiful.

Sunday Street Stories: Yangon’s Living Restoration

Almost every colonial-era building in downtown Yangon has a spellbinding story to tell, though interest in aesthetic restoration is still fledgling. An unassuming building in Merchant Street now serves as a demonstration of how  a facelift can be done while keeping the original architecture intact.

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Taking into account the views of the residents and tenants, Turquoise Mountain set about renovating the building. They trained local workers, used quality materials and did it all on a tight budget. It’s a job well-done, and now there’s some hope that people living in historical spaces in Yangon will make an effort to preserve their inherent beauty. Fingers crossed.

PS- The project managers even restored the little altars outside!

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Pictures taken on: July 19, 2016
Location: Merchant Street, downtown Yangon, Myanmar
Device: Nexus 5

The Quinoa Debut

Life in Yangon is good. I’ve been in beautiful Myanmar (aka Burma) for 13 months now and each passing day I learn new things about the people, their culture, their religion, their beliefs, their beauty secrets, their ideology…

The isolation from Mumbai has been an eye-opener. I didn’t know I took so many things for granted back home, from the city’s crazy but robust public transport to the easy access to great food to the sheer convenience of grocery shopping. The first couple of months here in Yangon were a struggle to put food on the plate. Though S and I had stuffed our suitcases with essential ingredients, we still had dozens of things we couldn’t carry. Where can I buy dal? What about pav? Do we get curry leaves here? What about cumin seeds? The unfamiliar wet market, the cluttered supermarkets with so much foodstuff yet so little for me (dried shrimp and pickled fish aren’t my thing), and, of course, the language barrier, were a bit too much to handle.

But once I got confident with my language skills, I began exploring the market and local stores, and things began to look up. I found curry leaves at the neighbourhood market. S found a pav seller. The local supermarket began stocking most types of dal! I even found fresh tamarind and jaggery (Myanmar jaggery is yum!).

Now that I know where to find the most essential ingredients, I can breathe easy. You’d think I’m all set now.

But no, I have a terrible itch. The itch to try different things. The itch to visit an unseen country, to sample an untried cuisine, to learn a strange language, to cook a new dish…

So I signed up for a cooking class run by a lovely Australian woman here to learn shortcrust pastry and later baked a delicious rustic pie! I observed Myanmar-style salads and prepared some at home—trust me, they give a new meaning to the word “salad”. In summer, I tried making mango shrikhand without sugar, and succeeded. When Mom visited, I insisted she teach me malai kofta.

Last month, I was ready to try some new things in the kitchen. But a severe muscular spasm in my neck knocked me out and I couldn’t cook for several weeks. I visited Mumbai to see a doctor and get the treatment started. And, foodie that I am, I seized the opportunity to get my hands on some new things—such as a half-kilo box of quinoa.

I’d once used a packet of Lemon & Herb quinoa (or something similar) someone had gifted me. I needed to prepare it like any instant food (like packaged noodles). But the quinoa didn’t cook at all. Maybe I did something wrong? Either ways, I felt like such an idiot that I banished the incident to the “cooking failures” folder in my brain, never to be accessed.

But now, I’m a bit more confident of my culinary skills. And after the long break from cooking, I was hoping to try something new. Quinoa was fresh on my mind, and so began the hunt for a great recipe.

Despite my neck pain acting as an irritating companion, I wanted to make a complete meal, not just a snack or “light meal”. So I decided to debut my quinoa experiments with wraps.

It didn’t all go smoothly. I underestimated the cooking time at first, then I ended up with more quinoa than expected. No harm done though. Halfway through cooking I realized that the dish was becoming a mix mishmash of several cooking styles and flavours. I mean, hummus with herb-seasoned veggies? Wrapped in a South American flatbread? What was I doing?

But when I had the first bite with some vegan mayonnaise (yes, that’s a real thing), the elements fit together beautifully. S did a taste test and gave it a thumbsup.

Quinoa vegan wrap

Phew. All’s well that ends well.

Anyhoo, a bit about the recipe: The original recipe suggests cooking quinoa with the vegetables, but I decided to cook them separately because I wasn’t sure about cooking time and didn’t want to end up with mushy veggies and raw quinoa. It was wholesome, nutritious, delicious and hearty lunch! I used whole wheat tortillas from a local bakery.

Quinoa Debut Wraps

Ingredients

For the quinoa and vegetables:

1 cup quinoa (uncooked)

1 tsp chopped garlic

1 medium onion, chopped

1-2 green chillies, finely chopped

1 bell pepper/ capsicum (any colour), chopped

1 small carrot, chopped

1 tomato, chopped (or use a handful of cherry tomatoes instead)

A handful of corn (aka American corn)

1-1.5 tsp mixed seasoning (I used a readymade seasoning- you can use whatever you like: Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or a mix of your favourite Indian masalas)

Salt to taste

Juice of half a lemon

Small handful of chopped coriander leaves

Other vegetable possibilities: Zucchini and french beans

For the wraps:

4 whole wheat tortillas

4 tbsp of your favourite spread (any type of hummus or sandwich spread will do)

Method:

Wash quinoa well, then soak for five minutes in a pot. Drain the water, add two cups water to the quinoa (the ratio of quinoa to water is always 1:2). Put the pot on the stove and bring to a boil, then lower heat and let it cook covered.

While the quinoa is cooking, heat oil in a pan, then add garlic and onion, sauté for a minute. Then add the green chillies and cook for few seconds.

Add the vegetables to the pan with your seasoning or spice mix and a little water. Mix well, and cook for some time, stirring often and adding water if needed. The vegetables should soften a bit, but not lose their crunch. This could take anywhere from five to ten minutes.

When done, switch off the flame. Squeeze in the lemon juice and mix coriander leaves with the vegetables.

Meanwhile, drain the cooked quinoa. You know the quinoa is cooked when it’s soft and it seems to have “sprouted”. Keep it covered for five minutes, then uncover and let it cool.

Assembling the wraps:

Mix the cooked vegetables with the quinoa.

Dab some of your spread on a cooked tortilla, then add the quinoa-veggie mixture in a straight line across the middle. Roll it up and voila! Your quinoa wrap is ready.

Serve with a light dip of your choice.

Quinoa veggie wrap

PS—This recipe is vegan.

The wonderful Baltic Sea cruise

Several folks I’ve met believe cruises are for: 1) Old people 2) Families with kids 3) Lazy losers.

But I say, baloney to that! I fall in none of these categories, but I still enjoy a great cruise. While on a cruise you can catch glimpses of not one but several new destinations, while getting a chance to relax and not having to worry about packing your toothbrush, scrambling for an inexpensive meal or running to catch a train. And if you fall in love with a place, you can plan a longer vacation around that next time.

The Northern European cruise I did with Mom in May 2014 was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life—I visited a part of Europe we hadn’t seen before, saw some beautiful places and I ticked off a place on my bucket list—St Petersberg, Russia.

Day 0: Flying into Copenhagen, Denmark

Late night, we flew from Mumbai to Copenhagen via Brussels. (While in transit, we bought a box of Belgian chocolates to enjoy on the trip. :-D)

Day 1: Copenhagen, Denmark

We arrived in sunny Copenhagen mid-morning. I’d booked a Copenhagen Card which I picked up at the airport, so the Metro ride into town was free. We walked past canals and hip restaurants to reach our budget hotel in Borgergade.

After some rest, we headed out for a canal ride, admiring the brightly-coloured buildings, the Copenhagen Opera House and views of erstwhile royal residences. Then we hopped on to a local bus and headed to the country’s most famous amusement park Tivoli Gardens. While we were too tired to try the rides, we did enjoy the lively, familial atmosphere, the peacocks in the gardens, the food and a light comedy sketch (of which we understood nothing). We took a local bus back to hotel.

Copenhagen Denmark canal ride

Day 2: Helsingør (Elsinore) and Copenhagen

I’m a literature buff, so it was natural that I’d want to visit a place of literary significance. So early morning we took the DBS train from Copenhagen station to Helsingør (Elsinore). Our destination: Kronborg castle, also called the “Hamlet castle” for it’s supposedly the setting for William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. No one knows for certain if Shakespeare visited this castle, but he might have. And he most certainly had friends who did. While the castle looked grand and imposing as we walked there from the town’s small railway station, it was actually quite comforting once we were within its walls. It also had some gorgeous vantage points of Ørseund Strait (and Sweden!).

Elsinore Castle Denmark

After a guided tour of the castle and a brave solo trip of the cellar, we took the train back to Copenhagen and walked to Rosenborg Castle. I marveled at the gorgeous marble floors, the little pendants among the jewellery and the armoury sections of the castle museum. From there, we took a Metro ride to reach the to the aquarium Blue Planet. We got there just 15 minutes before closing time, but the staff was kind enough to let us in and enjoy the place at leisure. Though we were tired after such a long day, I wanted to visit the one of the largest no-car streets in Europe—Strøget. Since it was summer, it was a late sunset and we window shopped in fashion stores and the Lego store (yay!), till we got tired and decided to just people-watch instead. After dinner at a wonderful Mexican restaurant, we walked back to our hotel.

Day 3: Copenhagen and cruise

We had a few hours in the morning, so we took a bus to Christiansborg Palace, the seat of Danish parliament. Unfortunately it was closed that day but we could go into the courtyard and view the glorious façade. Then another bus ride to the National Museum of Denmark (free entry). There’s only one word for this museum—mind-boggling. I especially enjoyed the prehistoric and Vikings section, and the toy section. Too bad I didn’t have more time to see the entire museum. We headed back to the hotel to grab our bags and take a taxi to the pier where our Royal Caribbean cruise ship Legend of the Seas was docked. We checked in, had a leisurely lunch at the restaurant, then spent the evening exploring the ship.

Day 4: At sea

After the past two days of hectic travel, we finally had a chance to relax. We made the most of our time onboard—we watched a Broadway-style dance show, played Bingo, tried our hands at a cooking demo and sampled the complimentary snacks around the ship.

Day 5: Stockholm, Sweden

Next morning, we docked at Stockholm. On the way there, we passed the Stockholm archipelago—thirty thousand little green islands dotting the Baltic Sea. It was a bright sunny day in the Swedish capital, and our pre-arranged tour guide (Carlos from Mexico!), took us on a city tour. We first visited Stockholm City Hall where I gaped at the grandeur of the “golden room” with its high ceilings and walls bathed in gold. The hall also hosts the lavish Nobel Prize banquet every year.

Stockholm City Hall Sweden

We then headed to Gamla Stan, the old city centre with its narrow streets, closely-placed buildings and plenty of cafes and restaurants. After snaking our way through the winding streets, Mom and I headed to an Indian takeaway joint for a packed lunch. Sitting in the main square, I opened my lunch box and tasted the most delicious dal makhni and jeera pulao I’ve ever had outside India. After lunch, we headed to Stockholm Palace to witness the changing of the guard, briefly stopping en route for a photo op with City Hall as background. And then we visited the Vasa Museum—a unique museum that’s all about ships. I didn’t even know I liked ships till I visited this one. Back on board late afternoon, we headed for an evening snack, then rested up before dinner.

Day 5: Tallinn, Estonia

Not too many people have even heard of this country in Northern Europe. Its capital Tallinn is a town steeped in medieval history. We went around the city by bus, taking time to walk around the cobblestoned streets in Old Town, spotting quaint churches and centuries-old walls. We later visited the stunning Kadriorg Palace, the entryway lined with gorgeous gardens and fountains. Inside the palace complex, I visited a small museum housed wonderful sculpture and paintings from around Europe. We later took a bus back to the pier.

Day 6: St Petersburg, Russia

Oh, how I’d waited to reach Russia! Despite the gloomy weather and continual rain, my day in St Petersburg is among the most memorable days of my life. Since we could enter Russia as a cruise visitor only via a guided tour, I’d signed up for one already. Our first stop was the amazing Peterhof Palace on the outskirts of the city. Despite the damage during the wars, the palace has been restored wonderfully and walking through the large halls to see the royal crockery, dining table and silks was like stepping back in time.

Peterhof Palace St Petersberg Russia

We then headed to the Hermitage Museum in the heart of the city. The building was designed in a typical Baroque style and I thoroughly enjoyed the classical Greek artifacts, Italian and Spanish paintings and Russian art. We then had a chance to ride the escalator deep down into the city metro just to see how the station itself is a work of art! Later we stopped for souvenir shopping (matryoshka dolls were on my list) and to the Church on Spilled Blood, named so after Emperor Alexander II was wounded here. Dead tired after this very exhausting day, we headed back to our ship for a dinner and rest.

Day 7: Helsinki, Finland

We were still recovering from the crazy day in St Petersburg, when we docked in Helsinki where it was cold and drizzling non-stop. The Finnish capital is a very charming city, and we bought a hop-on-hop-off bus ticket. We sat back to enjoy the ride around town, seeing places like Rock Church and Sibelius Monument. We then got off at Market Square to catch a ferry to Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, located on an island off the coast of the city. We walked through the fortress-island and stopped along the way to peek at little souvenir shops, experience cannons and take in the rocky-green landscape.

Suomenlinna Fortress Helsinki

Back in Helsinki, I bought a reindeer tooth bracelet to gift a friend, and walked to Senate Square to enjoy the neo-classical architecture and browse through the designer boutiques nearby. Our cruise took off soon after lunch so we soon headed back to port by bus, and our driver turned out to a chatty Brit with a thick Cockney accent living in Finland. Good times!

Day 8: At sea

We used this non-port day to recoup from the craziness of the last couple of days. The cruise’s head chef had invited some of us to visit the onboard kitchen and so we went for the mini-tour, cameras at the ready. I saw the chefs hard at work, some chopping skillfully, some loading the bread-making machines, some rolling out pasta dough. Despite the flurry of activity, the kitchen was sparkling clean. We spent the rest of our day reading on deck and enjoying the special dinner.

Royal Caribbean cruise kitchen

Day 9: Return to Copenhagen, flight back to India

Our ship docked in Copenhagen early morning. After a quick breakfast and checkout, we hailed a taxi to drive us to the airport. Our driver turned out to be extremely well-read and told me he was currently reading J Krishnamurthi. (Woah, that’s super intense stuff). At the airport, we boarded our flight back home, coming back via Abu Dhabi.

To check flights to Copenhagen and other Baltic destinations check out the listing of International Flights here.

Sunday Street Stories: It’s all about great hair

In Yangon (and most of Myanmar) women young and old have gorgeous, poker-straight hair. Their secret? Not their genes or diet or combing techniques… But regular trips to the beauty salon.

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So how are Myanmar women different from women worldwide? After all, almost every country has a vibrant and thriving beauty industry. Well, for one, it’s the number of visits women make to the salon (to straighten their hair, to colour their hair, to wash their hair, to massage their head, to blow dry their hair, and of course, paint their nails). So salons do brisk business. And then, the  sheer number of salons in business. Within just a 60-metre radius around my building, I’ve counted seven beauty salons. (Maybe there are more). If anyone did a worldwide survey of  beauty salons per capita or beauty salons per square kilometre, Myanmar might just win hands down. The salons here often work till late night,  staying open even after restaurants shut down!

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Location: Hledan Street, Yangon, Myanmar
Date: June 25, 2016
Device: Google Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: Yangon Stock Exchange

Tall columns, a neatly-designed façade, delicately ornate with a smooth finish, this beautiful colonial-era building in downtown Yangon is a stunner. Obscured from view by a cluster of trees, I barely noticed it though I’ve passed it several times while in a taxi.

But last week, I finally saw it up close. It’s just one of a handful of well-preserved Yangon buildings, and reminds me of Mumbai’s RBI building on Mint Road. Turns out this one is the Yangon Stock Exchange.

Yangon stock exchange

The stock exchange began operations only last December and the first company listed this March. With all the rapid changes happening in Myanmar, there’s so much interest in investing here and hopefully the stock exchange paves the way for a robust financial sector.

While potential investors are looking for business opportunities, I’m trying to figure out if I can go inside.

 Device: Google Nexus 5

Date: May 15, 2016

Location: Downtown Yangon, Myanmar

An ode to Myanmar’s magnificent mangoes

There’s nothing better than a burst of sweetness in your mouth. Sweetness that’s like fresh breeze on a hot summer day, a taste so wonderful that it enthralls your taste buds and fills your heart with joy. It’s a treat that you wish will linger forever.

Such divine sweetness does exist, and I bet you’re thinking Alphonso, Alphonso, Alphonso.

I grew up eating dozens of Alphonso mangoes every week in summer. My maternal grandmother bought (no, hoarded) several boxes and force-fed the mangoes to everyone at home or anyone who dropped by. On a typical summer day, we had Alphonso mangoes at breakfast with mango milkshake, chopped Alphonso mangoes after almost every meal, then Alphonso with ice cream or whipped cream, or mango yoghurt-based cheesecake for dessert.

And outside the home, there were more mangoes to be had. Restaurants, ice cream parlours and mithai shops across Mumbai would be flooded with seasonal mango delicacies like the Gujarati-style aamras with deep-fried puris (mango pulp with deep-fried Indian bread) or mango shrikhand (strained yoghurt dessert). Oh, and the super sweet mango mishti doi (fermented sweet yoghurt). Or the subtly-flavoured mango sandesh (cheese-based confectionery).

So yes, I’d had hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Alphonso mangoes in the first two-odd decades of my existence. After my grandmother passed away a few years ago, our memories of her fondness for mangoes stayed on. But the sweet essence of Alphonso mangoes seemed to rescind into the past as well. The flavour has changed from sweet to weirdly-sweet-and-bit-sour, and they got more juice and less pulp. I lost interest in Alphonso mangoes.

It was with a heavy heart that I privately acknowledged a shocking fact about myself a couple years ago: I just didn’t like Alphonso mangoes anymore. And mangoes in general didn’t beckon to me anymore.

Last June, S and I discovered Sein Ta Lone mangoes in a Yangon fruit market. I wasn’t too keen on trying them. I mean, how can any mango beat an Alphonso?

Sein Ta lone mangoes

But I tried it anyway. Turns out Myanmar’s gorgeous Sein Ta Lone mango is at least a gazillion times better than the Ratnagiri Alphonso.

I fell in love at first bite. Sein Ta Lone mangoes are a perfect hue of orange and gold, they’re juicy and pulpy, wonderfully aromatic, with a smooth non-fibrous texture, and, of course, richly, delightfully, gloriously sweet. Each bite is pure heaven.

Grown around Myanmar, these mangoes are fleeting visitors in local fruit markets—they’re available for only two months a year (April to June). The name is just as beautiful – sein means diamond and ta lone means one piece. So Sein Ta Lone is the precious diamond solitaire of fruits.

What an apt name.

These mangoes don’t cost as much as a diamond of course, but are still fairly expensive (by Myanmar standards). A high-quality Sein Ta Lone mango weighing 300 to 400 grams will cost around 400-600 kyats per piece. (That’s between 35 and 55 cents for a mango). But they’re totally worth the indulgence if you have the means.

The Sein Ta Lones are so sweet that I made mango chutney at home, bottled it all up, gave some to friends, and sold some as well. The best thing: the chutney is sweet, but I didn’t need to put any sugar in it. :-D

mango chutney sein ta lone

Besides the Sein Ta Lone, Myanmar has several other delicious varieties of mangoes as well, and many fall off trees on to the streets of Yangon. I’ve seen people around Yangon picking them up and taking them home to eat. What a delight!

After decades of being cut off from rest of the world, Myanmar has thousands of secrets unknown to the world and these divine fruits are one of them. I can’t imagine summers without Sein Ta Lone mangoes anymore.

MOM TO ME: Culinary lessons for life

Like every good Indian kid, I claim that my mom is the bestest cook in the world. This may be an exaggeration, but several of my friends and family members concur that she is among the best home cooks they know of. Her food is mostly simple home-cooked fare, the kind of food that’s cooked every day across millions of homes in India. But it’s confoundingly delicious.

When I moved out of Mumbai last year, Mom narrated some of her recipes to me which I typed into my laptop or tapped into my phone and saved on Evernote. Dishes like gobi aloo, rajma and even chutney. She often began by saying, “There’s no recipe for this”, but when I insisted, she thought it through, and today the couple of dozen of my mom’s recipes that I’ve acquired are an absolute treasure.

In a foreign land, her recipes help me recreate the experience of her home. The colourful spices in my stainless steel masala box (bought by Mom) have a pride of place on my kitchen counter. As per her instructions, the cumin sputters in hot ghee for the tadka and the onion browns for a long, long time for the gravy base. Aromas of roasting besan and fresh coriander chutney waft around my home today, while sounds of sizzling mustard seeds and knife-on-chopping board echo around my kitchen. It’s just like my childhood, except I’m the one creating food memories. Like with this sweet corn soup:

Sweet corn soup

Of course, my food is nowhere as good as Mom’s. The flavours in her food are much more nuanced, and the textures much more balanced. She cooks with passion, love and lots of fervour, which means there’s a method to her madness. While there may be a big mess on the kitchen counter, the menu and ingredients are all sorted in her head.

I’m still trying to learn her “secrets”. She claims there aren’t any, but I beg to differ. From what I’ve observed in the past few weeks (when she was visiting me), this is what I’ve learnt. And there are many more to go:

How to make curd/ yoghurt: This is practically a science and it was an important part of my daily diet growing up. But I’ve been spending our hard-earned money on buying supermarket yoghurt. After various attempts with different starter cultures and milk brands, Mom finally hit the right formula that works for me. So it’s fresh dahi everyday! I can’t even explain how grateful I am.

Paratha and raita

Kheer and phirni: I’m not a big fan of Indian desserts, or even desserts in general, but these two dishes were an absolute delight when she cooked them. So yes, I’ve noted them down already though not attempted them yet.

Patience: Each dish requires a certain amount of time to be cooked, and if you don’t give it that much time, it just won’t be right. Patience is key here, whether cooking Indian food or otherwise.

Oye Punjabi: Punjabi food, especially Amritsari food is a very distinct cuisine. I’ve got some command over the basics of Punjabi food now, but there’s so much more to learn. But beyond the dishes, Mom’s demystified some exotic-sounding ingredients like aamchoor (dried mango powder), ajwain (carom seeds) and anardana (dried pomegranate seeds).

Reinvention: Now that S has banned sugar at home, we’re using stevia. Mom had never even heard of it, but now cooks with it and sometimes skips a sweetener altogether though her original recipe called for it. And even though all Indian ingredients aren’t available here, she adapted some recipes to cook delicious meals without them.

Attention to detail: Don’t forget to sprinkle of black pepper powder at the end, or to garnish with fresh coriander leaves. Or that this curry needs fewer curry leaves than the other one. These tiny touches make all the difference.

Happy Mothers’ Day!

Earth-friendly fashion, food and travel

Last week was Earth Day. I usually don’t pay much attention to such “days” because most of them are mere eyewash, but Earth Day got me thinking. Can I really make a difference in building a better future for a greener planet?

I assessed my passions (fashion, food and travel) and I figured- sure, I can make an impact, and quickly sat down to make a rough list. At the end of an hour, I re-read the list and scratched out a few unfeasible ideas. But a handful of practical and pragmatic earth-friendly ideas survived. An inner voice said, “Hey, this can work!” So I decided to take the list public and share it with you all.

Here goes:

Fashion

Biba kurtas

Shop within a limit. And I don’t mean your credit card limit. Plan your shopping and decide what you need to buy before you head to the mall. Even with just a dozen tops and half a dozen pants, you can be trendy and stylish. Sure, end of season sales are tempting and a wonderful excuse to buy the orange top or pink dress on your wishlist, but do you really need Blouse No. 52 in your wardrobe? Instead, do a thorough wardrobe cleanse over a long weekend, then only add new clothes and accessories to replace an older one that’s worn out.

Recycle and reuse. I’ve been hearing this mantra for years now, but never followed it. Late 2014, I reused my mom’s wedding dupatta with a new ensemble and made a modern-looking blouse to match her traditional sari, I realized that this formula works. You can transform a large silk scarf into a top or stitch neutral-coloured sari blouses to wear with well-preserved saris. Besides, you get bragging rights to declare, “I’m wearing vintage!”

pink dupatta

Buy locally-made clothes. Here’s how the supply chain of most fast fashion brands (like Zara) usually work: Clothes are manufactured in Country A, then sent to home country and dispatched around the world. Or the garments are shipped directly to warehouses or stores in Countries B, C, D and so on. Working on tight deadlines and short turnaround times, manufacturers often dispatch the merchandise via air. With hundreds of manufacturers and dozens of countries, you can imagine the amount of emissions a single brand’s business could generate. A simple thumb rule (broad generalization): the shorter the distance a garment travels, the more planet-friendly it is likely to be in terms of emissions. Buying clothes made in another part of the world may often be the easier (read: cheaper) option, but do try to opt for a local brand when possible. India has dozens of clothing and accessories brands that source and manufacture locally. “Made in India” seems appealing, doesn’t it?

Buy good quality clothes and accessories. You bought a cute pair of chappals from Linking Road and a stylish cotton kurta from Lajpat market for a steal. Both get worn out in a few months. And so you want to buy new chappals and another cotton kurta. Instead, how about you pay a bit more and buy chappals and a kurta that last longer? This way you generate less waste and save money in the long run. Think of each purchase as an investment of sorts, and calculate the returns in terms of how long it will make you happy. True, better quality may often mean more strain on your wallet, but when you’re buying fewer clothes and shopping less often, the extra bucks you spend are actually working to save you money in the future.

Food

Fresh local produce Chaing Mai Thailand

Eat local produce as much as you can. Of course, that’s not always possible. You don’t get great India-made feta or miso paste, but local fruits and vegetables are always the freshest and have travelled much shorter distances to reach you. Besides, seasonal fruits and vegetables are often delicious. So, if you have a choice, buy local.

Carry your own shopping bag. A cloth or jute bag or locally made basket is super handy in the market. My granny had gifted my mom couple of hand-woven baskets several years ago which she still uses. Myanmar has some lovely woven baskets as well, and I’ve bought not one, but two of them!

Use cloth instead of plastic and paper. Replace kitchen tissue with cloth towels to dry pots, pans and plates in the kitchen, or wipe your hands. There are some “highly absorbent” options which you can use for several days before throwing them for a wash. (Yes, I use just such a towel!). And oh, I prefer to use a handkerchief instead of paper tissue.

Reuse (yes, again!). I saw bamboo straws in Cambodia, and regret not buying them. They were reusable and very cute! Conscious foodies often carry reusable cutlery such as forks and chopsticks instead of using the disposable ones found in takeaway joints or fast food restaurants.

Travel

Boat ride Copenhagen

Use public transport. This one’s a no-brainer. And besides, if you’re using a local bus or public ferry you’ll get a better feel of local life. Better still, cycle around town.

Carry a reusable water bottle. Invest in a sturdy good-sized water bottle. In several countries, you can fill up your bottle with tap water (especially across Europe) or from a water dispenser in airports or malls. I carry my reusable water bottle all the time- when I’m going shopping or to a movie, so I’m not tempted to buy water or cold drinks, usually sold in paper cups, tin cans or plastic bottles. Besides reducing possible wastage, I avoid the extra calories in cold drinks. :-)

Avoid takeaway. Takeaway meals are usually packed in plastic bags and cutlery, thermocol boxes and disposable plastic boxes for sauces etc. Instead, try to relax and enjoy your meal at the restaurant. You’ll savour the food experience a lot more.

Indian thali food

Book online. And don’t print your ticket, if it isn’t required. Save it on your phone or tablet instead. There are several museums, airlines, theatres, trains and other touristy places that don’t need a paper ticket. We once travelled in an overnight train from Rome to Palermo with the ticket on our iPad without a problem. And when I booked a ticket on the IRCTC website from Vapi to Mumbai, all the TT asked for was my ID proof. Most hotels are fine with electronic booking vouchers as well.

Carry e-copies. When my mother and I first travelled abroad in the late 1990s, we were advised to carry multiple copies of our passports, visas and tickets in case something went wrong. Now we save the scanned copies of our documents on email and in our phone’s photo gallery, so it’s accessible even without an internet connection. Do the same. Save paper and ink!

Stay earth-friendly and chic!

Breakfast: Totally Rad Leftover Idlis

Ever since I introduced a set of idli molds in my Yangon kitchen last November, rice idlis and homemade slow-cooked sambhar have become an important weekend ritual. By important, only these two dishes can be served at Sunday lunch.

Our ritual is something like this: on Saturday evening S and I head to our friendly and familiar neighbourhood market. (Despite being very “Burmese”, Indian ingredients are not so difficult to find here.) We know the couple who stocks curry leaves in their stall and the trio of sisters who have drumstick (really!). We buy the ingredients for sambhar: curry leaves, a few ladyfingers, a carrot, some french beans, a couple tomatoes, a quartered pumpkin and S’s favourite, a drumstick. While watching TV that night, or just before we go off to bed, we divide the prep activities and chop the vegetables. I wake up a bit early on Sunday and soak the toor dal for couple of hours. After a light breakfast and quick shower, I begin preparing the sambhar, first pressure cooking the dal, then cooking it with the vegetables and spices. Finally, I add the tadka.

The idlis, though, are mostly S’s job. While I step out for couple hours for a Spanish lesson to the outskirts of Yangon, S prepares the batter, double boiler pot and molds. He often makes a few extra idlis for next day’s breakfast as well.

This week we had a few more idlis leftover than usual. Three, to be precise. Not wanting to throw them away, I vaguely remembered eating mini masala idlis at a South Indian buffet in Mumbai several years ago. The mini idlis had been cooked with spices and were bright red, quite spicy and delicious.

With this vivid food memory playing on my mind, I thought I’d create my own version of masala idlis. Using standard Indian breakfasts like poha and upma as inspiration, I began to play with some simple ideas and conjured up a dish.

I prepared the ingredients Sunday night, knowing I would feel super lazy next morning. And so I did. Luckily, this breakfast dish took just a few minutes to cook and I was relishing it soon enough.

Leftover idlis Indian breakfast recipe

Generously spiced, delightfully colourful, crumbly and crunchy at the same time, I’m happy to say that the leftover idli experiment was a success. I’ve dubbed this dish Totally Rad Leftover Idlis.

In this recipe, sweet onions and sour-ish tomatoes provide an easy base for the dish, while capsicum (green bell peppers) add the crunch that I like, a perfect contrast with the soft idlis. The secret spice blend (okay, it’s not really a secret, see recipe below) will wake up your taste buds (as they did mine). I was very tempted to top the dish off with grated cheese, but I’m glad I didn’t. It would have messed up the uniquely Indian flavours of my Totally Rad Leftover Idlis. Instead I had it with a glass of orange juice.

Leftover idlis Indian breakfast recipe

Of course, I don’t think this is an authentic way of eating idlis, but like a good homemaker (how I hate that word!), I don’t like throwing away perfectly edible home-cooked food. And this recipe turned out to be a quick, fuss-free way of using up idlis in the fridge.

I tweeted a photo to S, who was away for work. I’m sure he’s going to want Totally Rad Leftover Idlis for breakfast next Monday.

PS- I’ve used stevia in this recipe because sugar is banned in my home (yep, we’re crazy health nuts). Feel free to add a bit of regular sugar instead.

Recipe: Totally Rad Leftover Idlis

Prep time: 7 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 teaspoon oil

1 teaspoon mustard seeds

A pinch of asafoetida (aka hing)

1 dry red chilli (whole)

3/4 teaspoon urad dal

3-4 curry leaves

1 small green chilli chopped

1small onion chopped

1small tomato chopped

1 small or half a large green capsicum chopped

A pinch of stevia/ sugar (optional, only if tomato is too tart)

1 teaspoon sambhar powder

Red chilli powder to taste (optional)

4 leftover idlis- chopped or broken with hand into bite-sized pieces

Small handful coriander leaves to garnish

Serves 1-2 people

Method

Heat oil in a small frying pan or wok.

Add mustard seeds. When they begin to splutter, add asafoetida, curry leaves, urad dal and dry whole red chilli.

Fry for couple of minutes, then add green chillies and onions, and cook till the onions begin to soften (we don’t need to brown them). This should take around five minutes.

Add tomatoes and cook till the tomatoes lose their tartness. If they seem too sour (from aroma and taste), add a pinch of stevia (or sugar).

Add the sambhar powder and red chilli powder (I skipped the latter because the green chillies in Myanmar are VERY HOT), along with salt.

Add capsicum and mix well. If you’d like to leave the capsicum crunchy, stir for just a couple of minutes. For softer texture, cook a bit longer.

Add the chopped idlis and mix till coated with the spices.

Switch off the flame, serve in a bowl or plate, and garnish with fresh coriander leaves.

Enjoy!

Leftover idlis Indian breakfast recipe

Myanmar’s beauty secret

Walking through the streets of Yangon, I see painted faces. Not the kind smiling down from giant signboards advertising vitamin supplements, but real people faces. Painted. Women young and old, little boys and girls and (some) men sport the paint like it’s part of them, as natural as wearing clothes or applying moisturiser. In the sundrenched streets, in the bustling wet market, at the airconditioned supermarket, in packed buses, I see cheeks and foreheads sporting circles and streaks of ochre, like a sort of war paint.

Myanmar girl in Thanaka

This “war paint” is thanaka or thanakha (pronounced tuh-naa-kaa), and it functions as a potent weapon to protect Myanmar people from the harsh sun.

Myanmar folk believe thanaka is a wonderful antidote to the harmful effects of too much sun. It keeps their skin de-tanned, safe and non-greasy.

Made from the bark of the wood apple tree that grows across Myanmar, thanaka paste has a gentle fragrance that vaguely reminds me of Indian sandalwood. Market vendors sell chopped pieces of thanaka bark at different prices, based on size. You choose your bark, take it home, and pound it into a paste with some water in a special grinder called kyout pin (pronounced chow-pi-ye).

Here’s the bark I spotted in my neighbourhood wet market (Hledan Zei):

Wood apple or thanaka bark Myanmar

And this is the grinder (kyout pin, picture courtesy Myat Su San)

Thanaka grinder Myanmar

If you don’t own the grinder (like me) or don’t know how to make the paste, you buy ready thanaka paste from the supermarket (like me). It’s less effective than home-made thanaka but still works, according to this experiential feature in Myanmar Times.

Thanaka in Yangon supermarket

Thanaka in Myanmar supermarket

Take some paste with a spatula or fingers, apply on your cheeks and voila! You’re ready to soak up the sun. You can also apply thanaka on your forehead, arms or any body part exposed to the sun. Some artistic Myanmar moms paint flowers on their daughters’ cheeks with thanaka. So cute!

Thanaka can stay on all day, but I’ve only used it for short periods of time, and my skin feels radiant, soft, bright and fresh after washing it off. Most importantly, I don’t get a post-sun headache and my skin feels cool when I’m in the sun. So yes, I believe it works. And the nearly blemish-free, bright skin I’ve seen on most Myanmar people is proof enough for me.

When people ask me what thanaka is, I say it’s sunblock, sunscreen, gentle exfoliator, face pack, cream, all rolled into one. You only need to try it to feel its magic!

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