Lessons from a cooking disaster

 

I clearly remember the first time I tried to cook something entirely on my own (no, I don’t mean instant noodles). It was a weekend, early 2014. And I had decided to make bhindi (aka okra/ ladyfinger), a simple stir fry subzi to go with rotis.

I had no recipe, so I texted an aunt for help. She mentioned something like “Add this, then add masalas, then cook…” and so on and so forth. I had to text her again and ask, “Which masalas?”. Then I had to crosscheck their pictures online with the spices I already had in the kitchen.

Yep, I was that much of a cooking noob.

(BTW, this my sweet potato and spaghetti casserole. Doesn’t look like a newbie dish, does it?)

Spaghetti sweet potato bake

So I started my first kitchen foray all gung ho and super excited. I washed and chopped the ladyfinger, sliced onions, then turned on the heat, and began the actual cooking.

And I did everything right, just like my aunt had said. Or at least I thought I did.

At the “Iet it cook for some time” step, I left the pan unattended to do some other chores. I was away for just a few minutes. When I came back, the ladyfinger was sticking to the pan.

“Uh oh, they’re getting burnt,” I thought, and then I sought out to use my highly-developed common sense to rectify it.

I added water, of course.

Now, if you know how to cook ladyfinger, you may also know that adding water to ladyfinger spells disaster. Not the “Oh-I-spilt-some-milk” sort of disaster. But Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. Adding water to the Indian ladyfinger while cooking is a catastrophic mistake.

And so… The dish became all stringy and icky and looked like a giant lump of goop. I ruined the first dish I ever cooked.

But I also tasted it. The balance of flavours was perfect, but the texture was slimy and it the little pieces of ladyfinger were as scary-looking as Medusa’s head.

Of course I was upset.  I cried. But then… I tried cooking the same dish a few days later. Did NOT add water.

And the result?

Success.

What a relief that was.

Lesson learnt: Ask the right questions. Do your homework. And yes, don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Since then, I haven’t let my kitchen disasters get my morale down. I learnt my lessons. And I’m glad I did.

(Here’s an attempt at broccoli soup. Still not perfect!) 

Broccoli soup

And I’ve been learning new lessons every time I go to the kitchen.

But from all the amazing, crucial, important and significant tips, tricks and hacks I’ve learnt about cooking, the most significant ones have been those that I apply to my life as well.

I don’t necessarily live to cook, and I don’t cook every day, but it’s an important part of my life now. I’m proud that I can feed myself, wherever I am.

What has cooking taught you?

Fantastic food: My recent faves

Back to Mumbai means back to noisy streets, crowded trains and endless traffic jams. But it also means dozens, nay, hundreds of amazing places to eat. And so, the last few weeks I’ve been heading to old haunts and new places, relishing my favourite dishes and exploring new ones.

So here are the best food experiences in the last one month.

Best breakfast: The Pantry, Kala Ghoda

We spent a gorgeous Sunday morning surrounded by peace and quiet, and great food, of course. “The kheema is brilliant”, declared S after a few bites. And so was the mushroom, chilli and cheese omelette. Oh yum!

Pantry Kala Ghoda breakfast kheema

Pantry Kala Ghoda breakfast omelette

Best main course: The Sassy Spoon, Bandra

Packed on a Tuesday afternoon, The Sassy Spoon at Bandra had a great vibe and even better food. The star of the show was my main course- zucchini and sweet potato roesti with ratatouille. With refined plating, the right balance of flavours and the goodness of vegetables, this was a truly memorable dish.

Sassy Spoon zucchini roesti

Best dessert: Bombay Vintage, Colaba

Now I’m not a desserts gal at all, but when friends order an weird-sounding dish called jaggery pudding, you know you got to try it. And so I did, and I did NOT regret the calories at all. Topped with ice cream, this dessert was a refreshing departure from cheesecakes and mousses.

Bombay Vintage jaggery pudding dessert

Old time favourite: Café Royal, Colaba

S and I are HUGE sizzler fans and so Café Royal is my all-time favourite. I visit the restaurant on an empty stomach and I polish off my sizzler. Always. Check out my sizzler. ‘Nuff said.

Cafe Royal Mumbai vegetarian sizzler

Friday Films: Chutney and La La Land for food and fashion

Food Film: Chutney

An extra marital affair, small town gossip, an annoyed domestic help and a seemingly-innocent housewife are blended expertly to create the intriguing story of Chutney. As the special chutney recipe is revealed, the home-grown green chillies are not the only secret ingredient we discover. Tisca Chopra’s performance is stellar as she shares her recipe and narrates a sinister tale. Meanwhile, I’m craving samosas with spicy chutney.

Watch Chutney here if you haven’t seen it already.

 

Fashion film: La La Land

La La Land is a delightful musical journey. Even several days after watching the film I couldn’t get City of Stars out of my head. Aside from the breath-taking view of Griffith Observatory and the Hermosa Beach pier, I was taking mental notes on the costumes. There was none of the sloppy-but-standard jeans and tee combos for the sweethearts. Emma Stone’s chic and flattering dresses in solid yellow, blue, peach and green have given me major fashion goals, while Ryan Gosling’s always-dapper look should hopefully inspire gentlemanly dressing.

La La Land fashion yellow dress

La La Land fashion peach dress

A boat ride on Inle Lake, Myanmar

A lone fisherman in a conical hat flings his net into the freshwater lake. As the mist clears, I see miniature gardens of brightly-coloured flowers gently floating in the water. For miles, there’s nothing to see except water, a fisherman or two, the Shan hills in the distance, and the unfamiliar flowers and leaves beautifully meshed into the lake’s surface. The only sound is the dull throb of the boat’s diesel motor.

Fisherman at Inle Lake Myanmar

We are sailing through Myanmar’s Inle Lake in Shan State. And the lake is nothing like any other I’ve seen before. It is the lifeline of villages and towns that live by the shore. It’s the means of income and the means of transport both rolled into one. And it’s a unique ecosystem (also a biosphere reserve) with distinct flora and fauna scattered throughout the 116-square-kilometres lake.

Plants at Inle Lake Myanmar

Pockets of civilization appear in the distance. Local Burmese men and women line up for a “shared boat taxi” for their daily commute to the market or places of work. We stop by a market on the lakeside to buy souvenirs. Bargaining is hard in Myanmar, most of the times both you and the seller know that the price is exorbitant, but it’s a question of who is more stubborn. So you win some, you lose some.

House at Inle Lake Myanmar

Further down the lake, houses made entirely of wood appear like islands. Some of these structures have artisan workshops, where local craftsmen weave fabrics from lotus stems (exquisitely soft silk!) and make silver jewellery.

House Inle Lake Myanmar

At one souvenir shop on the lake, I see some women making small souvenirs. They are like any other woman, except their long necks are stacked with brass rings. They are Kayan Lahwi or Padaung women, seated here to fascinate tourists with their exotic neck jewellery and peculiar anatomy. Of course pictures are welcome.

Later, we head to a pagoda just off the lake. It’s like any other pagoda in Myanmar, filled with throngs of Myanmar people praying to Buddha.

After a refreshing drink of fresh coconut water just outside the pagoda, we head back to our boat. The gentle morning breeze has made way for the afternoon sun. The lake is busy, as boats stuffed with tourists slice through the water to explore life on Inle Lake.

Tourists at Inle Lake Myanmar

But we head back to the hotel on the boat and relish the quiet moments of solitude. As I step off the boat, I suddenly have a wish. One only. That the lake is preserved, its animals and birds and plants kept intact for centuries. That we humans don’t destroy the lake’s understated beauty with our ever-present destructive tendencies. I wish. I pray.

Reaching Inle Lake: To visit Inle Lake, take a flight from Yangon or Mandalay to Heho. The airport is 35 kilometres from the lake. The nearest town is Nyaungshwe in Taunggyi District of Shan State, Myanmar.

Sunday Street Stories: Rangoon War Cemetery

In a quiet lane off Yangon’s Pyay Road is a square of lush green grass dotted with trees and flowers that belie the crazy traffic just a few metres away. Few people go there. Taxi drivers wonder why you would want to get off at that strange place.

That strange, quiet, manicured place is Rangoon War Cemetery, with graves of hundreds of soldiers who died in action in Burma during the Second World War. Maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the cemetery is a space where race and nationality don’t matter. Indian and African soldiers lie next to their colleagues from Britain, bound together by war.

Rangoon War Cemetery Yangon
This piece of history is not on any tourist map of Yangon. But this place is important. Because it reminds me of the damage that war has caused over the centuries. And the consequences of war affect all of us, no matter where or when we are born.

Rangoon War Cemetery Yangon Burma

Location: Rangoon War Cemetery, Yangon (Myanmar)

Date: December 16, 2016

Device: Xiaomi Mi 5

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