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. 😀

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!

Sunday Street Stories: Mumbai’s Big Ben

On a hazy winter-like day in Mumbai, as busy officegoers crossed the maidan (grounds) at Churchgate, the Rajabai  clock tower rises conspicuously high above the crowds, the coconut trees and 20th century buildings.

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Inspired by London’s Big Ben, the clock tower was built in the Venetian-Gothic style in the 1870s. Financed by stock broker Premchand Roychand and designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, Rajabai Clock Tower in the Mumbai University campus has been one of my favourite buildings in the city. With its quiet Gothic elegance, the tower is a reminder that the city’s heritage are treasures that can last centuries, if only we care for them.

Location: Churchgate, Mumbai
Date: January 29, 2016
Device: Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: Yangon’s skaters

In my first weekend in Yangon last June, I was on my way to the mall supermarket for groceries when we passed the Hledan bridge (more like an overpass). Under the bridge were a bunch of young men on roller skates and skate boards. I was fascinated, having seen skateboarding only in some Hollywood movies.

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A few months ago, the skaters were  campaigning for a dedicated skate park. With crowdsourced funding, the park will soon be built in Yangon. Till then, skaters and skateboarders come to the overpass to practise and learn. A fun way to spend an evening.

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Picture taken on: December 4, 2015
Location: Yangon, Myanmar
Device: Nexus 5

Drool-worthy sports shoes are here!

There’s been a sudden surge of sports shoes at home recently. Between S and me, we have five pairs of various brands. Throughout my 13 years of schooling, I only had one sports pair: white canvas with laces, which had to be polished with thick and gooey white polish. We called them “tennis shoes”.

The few times I did go shopping for sports shoes, we’d fix a budget in mind and make a trip to Vama at Peddar Road. I’d try on a few pairs and then the most comfortable and “sensible” white pair was selected.

And then, for many years, I didn’t really need to buy sports shoes (I’ve never been a sporty or running or jogging or walking person). The sports shoes came out of the cupboard for holidays, vacations, picnics etc. And the shoes remained white and nice (and boring) for a long time. And then last year my white Nike pair (with a blue sswoosh) gave in, after several years of faithful service and support, and it was time to go sports shoe shopping again. I had started walking and jogging a bit and wanted good, no, great shoes. But when I went to the mall to take a look, I was blown away. I saw a mind-boggling range of sports shoes- different colours, textures, designs, some with fancy names, some with cool technology… and with several different uses. Shoes to wear with jeans, shoes for running, for walking, for tennis, for football, for fancy clothes… I was spoilt for choice. I finally settled for Reebook’s ZPump shoes in pink. Yes, PINK. And they look great, fit wonderfully, and have been holding me up for very long walks and runs.

Meanwhile, S needed to replace his old Puma pair. Again, white shoes, red logo. He’d decided to take up running (completed his first half marathon last week, yay!). S has bought three pairs since last year, two black and one blue, and he’s already looking for the next pair.

The transformation of our shoe rack (and our fitness level) has been incredible. We now own a colourful shoe rack filled with awesome-looking sports shoes.

Here are some awesome sports shoes lining up the stores these days, each with something “new” to offer, guaranteed to make you stand out in a crowd.

Colour crazy: Boys, make a statement with these black and gold MetaRun shoes from ASICS.

Asics MetaRun

Texture play: The two-toned mesh of the Skechers GORun Vortex shoes look super dynamic on the field.

Skechers GoRUN Vortex

Sporty but feminine: Ladies, here’s the purple sports shoe we’ve all been dreaming of! From Power Shoes (available at Bata).

Power by Bata Trail Zion (3) - INR 3499

Stars and stripes: When textures and colours abound, can prints be far behind? These patterned sneakers from Vans’ Americana collection will go great with jeans.

Vans Americana sneakers collection

High on tech: You just can’t go wrong with Reebok’s ZPump Fusion shoes (I own a pair!). The shoe molds itself to my foot and use the pump for cushioning and no-pain running.

Reebok ZPump Fusion - Rs 10,999

Which sports shoes are you planning to buy?