Making connections

Stanley Sagov is a doctor, a jazz pianist, and a cook, and some of his culinary specialties are dishes he grew up eating in South Africa. Stanley Sagov is a doctor, a jazz pianist, and a cook, and some of his culinary specialties are dishes he grew up eating in South Africa. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / February 25, 2009

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Stanley Sagov is a family doctor who practices in Arlington, as well as the chief of family medicine at Mount Auburn Hospital and a teacher at several medical schools. He's also known as a jazz pianist. He plays two sets with the Remembering the Future Jazz Band at the Regattabar March 4, behind a new CD, "Looking Forward to Remembering the Future." What's less known is Sagov's culinary skill, particularly when it comes to the dishes of his native South Africa. The night of the Regattabar gigs, Henrietta's Table will feature his recipe for "South African jazz curry." (Both club and restaurant are at the Charles Hotel.) We spoke with Sagov about medicine, music, food, and the connections among them.

Q. What do you like to cook?

A. There's curry, and there's also bredie, a kind of a peasant stew that's tomato-based, with or without meat. You can make it spicy. These are dishes I grew up with in South Africa. I've always loved that food. Because of an Indonesian influence, there's sweetness as well as spiciness. Until now, like my grandmother, I just cooked and tasted and never wrote any of it down.

Q. How did curries and bredies wind up in South Africa?

A. They stem from the waves of colonization. The Dutch colonized South Africa because they needed a vegetable source on long voyages. Sailors would get scurvy. They initially put Dutch citizens in the area to grow vegetables, but the fortunes of the Dutch changed, and those people stayed. The Dutch had slaves from colonies in Java, and there was a tradition of Indonesian food from the 1600s on. Then when the British took over, they brought workers from India who brought curry.

Q. What makes your dish "jazz curry"?

A. The mixture of cultures. European traditions couldn't have created it. Neither could African traditions. It's the coming together of European and African cultures. A sophisticated harmony and elaborate melodies are married to insistent, exotic rhythms. These cultures made the curry, just like they made the music what it is.

Q. What do the roles of doctor, jazz musician, and cook have in common?

A. They're sensual. Life would be bland and dull if you ate just for nutrition and didn't include loving the taste of food, having the taste remind you of places and people and events and family. In terms of medicine, if you just do it in a disembodied way, analytical and scientific, you're not going to be connecting with why it's such an important endeavor. To alleviate suffering is informed by science but works best when it's very alive, when people feel known.

Q. Have you ever cooked professionally?

A. Never. I have a fantasy about being a short order cook in a diner. People come in for breakfast. They tell you what they want exactly, and you give it to them. That seems very enviable. With medicine, people don't want to be there. They're in pain or afraid. Short order cook is really different from being a doctor. You meet a request that's tangible and finite. That's my fantasy for a relaxing, fun alternative. People I know who do that say it's not exactly that way. They say I might be romanticizing a little.

Q. So is this curry worth coming to Henrietta's Table for?

A. The curry is great, but you should really come hear the music.