Zainab Zubair is used to seeing the joy on the faces of British people after they eaten curry house favourites like chicken tikka masala or butter chicken at her Masala Box restaurant.
“If someone comes from England they say ‘wow! we miss the curry!'” she says of her guests at the Mitt i Möllan food court. “There are some Indians, but it’s mostly Swedish people.”
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The handful of Indian restaurants you find in the area are often pubs first, restaurants second, and in my opinion most of them serve some of the worst curries in Europe.
The Masala Box is the exception.
As well as the British curry staples, Zubair serves up Punjabi food from her native Lahore in Pakistan: dishes like dahl (lentils), samosa chaat (a deep-fried triangular pie with chickpea and yoghurt sauce), pani puri (fried bread bowls filled with spicy tamarind water), biryani (meat cooked in rice), and curries such as achar gosht (mutton and pickle curry), all served with rice or naan.
“Punjabis are very hospitable, so it’s basically generous,” Zubair says of the cuisine. “If it’s dahl, its very generous. It’s got a lot of ghee (clarified butter), and very big portions.”
She has tried to tone down the artery-blocking Punjabi originals to meet Swedish tastes, describing her food as it “healthy” and “up to scratch”, and “without unnecessary ghee”.
She serves what she thinks customers will want rather than what she would herself eat at home.
“The first chicken dish I had was butter chicken, and this is not Punjabi,” she jokes. “This is English!”
In Malmö, that means catering to vegans, and she offers vegan naan, dahl and other vegetable curries.
She also serves food from other parts of India, such as masala dosa, a rice pancake stuffed with potato curry, from southern Tamil Nadu.
I’ve eaten the vegetarian thali, a selection of vegetable dishes and chutneys, which I ordered with puri, a deep-fried bread normally served with breakfast.
On other visits, I’ve eaten the spicy achar gosht curry, which is flavoured with pickle which makes it deliciously rich and sour.
The Masala Box is also the only place outside the Indian subcontinent where I’ve found pani puri, a refreshing snack of spicy liquid, water, potato and pulses, poured into tiny cups of crispy pastry.
Zainab moved to Malmö in 2003 after marrying her Danish-Punjabi husband Sagheer and falling foul of Denmark’s tough immigration laws, which meant she couldn’t get a visa.
Zainab Zubair and her husband Sagheer. Photo: Masala Box
She has degrees in business and administration and initially wanted to work for a Swedish government agency.
“I always aspired to get a job there, but I couldn’t fit in,” she says. “But wherever I went, everybody liked my lunch boxes. Everybody liked my lunches.”
Her colleagues were fascinated by the metal “dabba” lunch box she brought with her, stuffed with tasty punjabi food, so in 2014, she decided to satisfy this Swedish curiosity by opening a food truck. A year later, she moved to one of the units in Mitt i Möllan off Möllevången Square.
The restaurant is very popular, but takes an enormous amount of work.
“Today is my 14th working day in a row and It happens quite a lot that I go three weeks without a break,” she says.
As well as the restaurant, she does catering for parties, and teaches cookery classes on Saturday and Sunday mornings, where aspiring chefs learn one chicken dish, one starter, ,one type of bread, one dahl, and a chutney.
“This is what I like most: to talk about food, and to make healthy and good food from scratch,” she says.