Radiolab's Jad Abumrad on Lebanese Cooking, Foodies, and Why He Wishes He Could Eat Like the Jetsons

Categories: Chatting With

Radiolab's Jad Abumrad and his parabolic lens.
WNYC's Radiolab has developed a serious following -- it currently ranks third in iTunes podcast downloads behind This American Life and Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!. Its success is thanks to its mesmerizing sound design, and storytelling that teases the human element out of subjects otherwise relegated to the dry pages of science journals. With a new season kicking off this Friday, we thought it would be a good time to talk to co-host Jad Abumrad. The reporter/composer was gracious enough to discuss everything from his favorite neighborhood eats to his addiction to Sour Patch Kids.

So you're living in Fort Greene. What do you like to eat around there?

There's been kind of a restaurant renaissance in my neighborhood recently. There's this kind of fast-food Mediterranean place I [order from] twice a week ... Black Iris. They're great, cheap, and the food is there before you even hang up the phone somehow. I always imagine these guys just circling the block with the food ready to go.

I'm so pedestrian when it comes to food. Ici is pretty good -- I eat there every so often. Smoke Joint, I eat there when I'm working really late. There's just something about a pulled pork sandwich at midnight that somehow works for me. We go to No. 7 a lot. I really like their fried broccoli and their steak.

Any other favorites outside of your neighborhood?

There's this tiny stand on Houston between First Avenue and Avenue A called Punjabi Grocery, where all of the cabbies go. That place is amazing, and so cheap. There's something about the experience of it -- you can't sit down and it's so cramped and sweaty, and you get channa or saag for like a buck. It's this weird anomaly in modern life, where you can get really good food for a dollar and just stand and watch people.

As a child of two Lebanese parents, what did you eat growing up?

The basics: hummus, tabbouleh, baba ganoush, all that kind of stuff. Mujaddara, which is this kind of lentil soup but without the water, so it's very thick, which I know doesn't sound appetizing, but it's the most delicious thing ever. Mulukhiyah -- it's like a 14-layer thing with rice, chicken, almonds, spinach, chopped-up red onions, and this vinegary sauce poured on top. It's something that almost no Middle Eastern restaurant serves because it's so labor-intensive. It takes like four hours to prepare. There's this one Palestinian joint in Bay Ridge, it's called Tanoreen, they make it and it's amazing. I don't really have that thing where people eat something and they're taken back to their childhood, but with that dish I'm like ... Wow, I'm with grandma and she's making it all day.

Any plans for a food-related episode of Radiolab in the future?

We've talked about it. The problem is that it's radio and it's one thing not to have pictures, but to not have pictures and smell ... so what are you left with at that point? You end up with a lot of chewing sounds and people going "Mmm mmm." A long time ago I actually produced this short-lived pilot about eating -- it was called Dish. It was with this brilliant guy, Ed Levine (of Serious Eats), and he would sit down with a bunch of chefs and interesting people and they would eat. All you heard was them chewing and it just wasn't great radio. We've looked at those people who do molecular gastronomy, but it just doesn't strike me as interesting. It strikes me as a magic show.

I was listening to the "Choice" episode, more specifically the Berkeley Bowl incident where you and your co-host Robert Krulwich have to choose one apple from many and you suffer from brain fatigue and make a bad choice. Does that experiment haunt your grocery store visits to this day?

I wouldn't say it haunts me, but I definitely embody that experiment every time I go to the supermarket. We have a giant Pathmark right near our house, which I tend to avoid, but when I do go the produce is just so daunting. It's like, OK, what kind of mushroom do I want? The recipe calls for mushrooms, but it doesn't say what kind and there are 14 kinds of mushrooms. And it's literally me standing in front of these 14 mushrooms for like 20 minutes. I do feel burdened by choice when it comes to food. I like it when I go to a place and there are four things on the menu. Even if you don't like those four things, it's better somehow. I can deal with that.

On your show, you also talk about the infamous marshmallow test, in which children's willpower is challenged in a test that has been shown to be predictive of future success. Do you think you would pass the test?

I think I would pass. I don't really like marshmallows. Maybe if you put out an iPad I would fail ...

What food is your equivalent to the marshmallow?

Sour Patch Kids. I can't even go to the movies because they have them there and I just end up eating so many. In college I bought a three-pound box of them and I ate them all in one day. My mouth literally bled. I have very strong willpower, but there are certain things that are like kryptonite, and that's one of them. Luckily, I found a deli that sells them individually wrapped so I can get just two for like 10 cents. It's really like a throwback to the old candy store days.

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