From the use of a tandoor to preparing her cuisine by way of the traditional Indian method dumphukht (slow steam cooking), Chef Geeta Bansal’s cultural background permeates her profession. If the walls of Clay Oven in Irvine could speak, patrons would hear the chatter of Bansal’s ancestors as they gilded their dishes of curries, chutneys and goat in beloved spices. “Everything I make is based on my Indian heritage and memories of flavors and tastes from India,” says Bansal. As Indian cuisine is influenced by countless regional cuisines, Bansal’s heritage is the definition of eclecticism her preparation of whole animal is proof of this.
Bansal’s first encounter with the cooking of whole animal was in Delhi, India, her homeland, when she was ten years old. While attending a ceremonial feast with her family, she watched as a whole goat was prepared on a spit. Although Bansal has not been able to escape the modern day preoccupation with technology entirely, noting that it can “make things easier over time and cut down on labor,” it is evident that the authentic techniques that she was exposed to in her youth in India fortify her culinary aesthetic at Clay Oven.
As of today, Bansal has been preparing whole animal for over fifteen years. While she prepares lamb, goat, venison, wild boar, rabbit, pig and alpaca; goat has a special place in her kitchen. This comes as no surprise considering the significance that goat has in Indian cuisine. Between sourcing, prepping and plating, it takes Bansal and her team four days to prepare a goat. On average, the actual cook time is roughly four to six hours. Goat at Clay oven is marinated, cooked in the in house tandoor, minced into kebabs, cooked in curry, and braised and fried. Bansal offers “the tandoor and its accoutrements, heavy duty braising pans and heavy duty steel skewers” as the essential kitchen ware when cooking whole animal. Amongst the plethora of dishes Bansal prepares from whole animal are seekh kebabs, samosas, haleem (stew) and biryani (rice-based dish). Preference is given to a spicy profile of ten to 12 aromatic spices and herbs. In homage to her heritage, she serves hearty curry and sweet and spicy chutneys as complements to her entrees.
Bansal incorporates as much of the goat as possible into her dishes parts like the liver, kidneys, brain and shanks (used to make a gelatinous soup) steer clear of trashcans at Clay Oven, while the intestines are discarded. A typical meal includes 5 to 6 courses followed by dessert.
Bansal gives credit to Kashmir, India locals for preparing the best whole animal she has ever had. “A whole lamb was prepared for the Id feast [or Eid al-Fitr, a religious holiday that marks the end of the Ramadan] and the eyeball was offered to the guest of honor.”