Cover Learn all about Jen Balisi's new cookbook in our interview below (Photo: indulgenteats/ Instagran)

Food blogger Jen Balisi, aka @IndulgentEats, talks to Tatler about her new cookbook, viral recipes, her Filipino-American identity, and showing the “unfiltered” side of recipe development online

Boasting over 365k followers on Instagram, Jen Balisi—better known as @IndulgentEats on Instagram—has been busy. The social media food blogger has been steadily creating content for her account, while also preparing for her first cookbook launch, Indulgent Eats at Home, for February 2022.

On top of everything, she’s also been popping up across Hong Kong’s hippest restaurants in the last few months, bringing recipes from her cookbook to life. In October, Balisi collaborated with Kennedy Town’s neighbourhood pizza joint, Alvy’s, creating a birria and bone marrow quesotaco, lobster mac and cheese, and a cheeseburger pizza inspired by one of her burger recipes. In early November, she headed to HATCH to share her cheesy pork and plantain empanadas, as well as hosting a full five-course dinner featuring recipes from different chapters of her book. She also served her East Meets West Coast Burger (which comes with two beef patties, gochujang mayo and a crispy cheddar cheese skirt) at her latest pop-up at Honbo Wan Chai in late November, with more pop up locations to come in the upcoming months. 

Here, we talk to Jen about her journey as a food blogger, her recipe writing process, how her identity as a Filipino-American shows up in the cookbook, and showing the “unfiltered” side of cooking online. 

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Tell us about yourself.

I'm a full-time food and travel content creator and recipe developer. I moved to Hong Kong over four years ago after living in NYC for 10 years, where I was originally a marketing manager at American Express.

How did @IndulgentEats begin?

I originally started it as a blog because I found myself having a lot of free time once I started working a full-time marketing manager job at American Express in NYC, and my growing salary allowed me to dine out and travel more. I was documenting all of these experiences and also teaching myself how to cook for fun. I would promote my blog posts on my personal Instagram account, and as I gained followers, I eventually created a food-specific IG because at the time, I was uncomfortable having lots of strangers following me (how things have changed!)

How did your love for food start?

Growing up in a Filipino household, food was the centre of every occasion, and my parents also made sure my sister and I sat down for dinner every night. It's hard to not grow an appreciation for food when you get to eat chicken adobo every week, and lumpia at every family gathering. 

How did you learn how to cook?

While I would help out in the kitchen, it wasn't until I studied abroad in Prague during my time at NYU that I really learned how to cook. I wasn't surrounded by amazing restaurants like I was in NYC, and there was zero Filipino food—so I finally learnt how to make some of the classics from my mom over Skype. From there, I continued trying out different recipes and learning new techniques in my tiny East Village apartment kitchen, and eventually really progressed my skills through the pandemic.

Tell us about your new cookbook, Indulgent Eats At Home

The cookbook is full of crave-worthy recipes inspired by the dishes that I’ve shared on Instagram, whether it’s from trying it during my travels around the world, living in New York and Hong Kong, or from my Filipino background. It was really important to me to showcase a wide variety of cuisines. 

The world has become seemingly more and more divided, but I’ve always believed in food as a means of bridging those gaps. So I also wanted the cookbook to show this by grouping the recipes by the type of food, showing how almost every culture has its version of breakfast, dumplings, flatbread, crispy rice, and more with a focus on the dishes that have either trended on Instagram or gone viral on my own page. So while someone may not be familiar with a dish personally, they may have heard of it from Instagram or find themselves drooling over the photos so much that they’re willing to try something totally new.

What’s a unique detail from your cookbook? 

Since I'm best known for my videos, it was also important that I find a way to connect the physical cookbook to the digital ecosystem I've created. So one thing that's quite unique to my cookbook is the use of QR codes. Every single recipe has a QR code that drives [visitors] to a webpage that will have an instructional video if needed, along with the original Instagram post or YouTube video from the restaurant that inspired the dish and links to buy special ingredients or equipment. There will also be a comments section that will act as FAQs, so readers can leave any questions for me to answer or share the ways they tweaked the recipes to their own taste so others can find inspiration.

Your cookbook is inspired by the “world’s most Instagram-famous foods”—how did you select which viral Instagram foods to recreate in your cookbook? 

There’s a lot of viral foods that are sometimes viral for the wrong reasons, so I really wanted to stick with the ones that I personally love and that I also thought I could put my own unique twist on. For example, my Gettin’ Jiggly With It Pancakes is a savoury take on the Japanese soufflé pancakes that have taken social media by storm, with a togarashi maple bacon that I can’t wait for people to make both with the pancakes and on its own.

Viral foods can also be very popular in some regions, but more unknown in others, so I also really wanted to focus on showcasing foods from around the world, even if it's not as mainstream. 

West African jollof rice, for example, has sparked its own #JollofWars on social media, but most people likely haven’t tried or perhaps even heard of this dish. Once they make it through, they’ll certainly want to make it again and again. I also really wanted to make sure every dish was worthy of the ‘gram, so all of the dishes I came up with are also incredibly photogenic.

How is being a Filipino-American in Hong Kong reflected in the book?

It was really important for me to represent my Filipino background in the cookbook, as I grew up surrounded by family and a large Filipino community in Union, New Jersey. It’s still a largely underrepresented cuisine, and while there’s been a wave of businesses that have been opening in the past few years in the US, I constantly find that there are so many in Hong Kong who haven't had Filipino food. 

Nine of the 60 recipes are Filipino, including my versions of Filipino Sizzling Pork Belly Sisig and Mango Float that were standout hits at my recent pop-up at Hatch. It brought me so much joy to have so many people try these dishes and fall in love with them at first bite. 

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How was the process of securing the book deal, creating the concept, and writing the actual book like? What was the most difficult part and what did you enjoy the most out of the entire process?

I had a unique situation where my publisher, Page Street Publishing, actually reached out to me after having followed me for some time on Instagram. As a result, the cookbook took on a more collaborative approach from its conception through the editing process, which shortened the timeline of the book. 

I could have gone the more traditional route of writing the full manuscript, finding a book agent, and then having them pitch it to different publishers, but at the end of the day I really wanted to get my book out there sooner, and as someone used to immediately sharing my recipes, it would’ve been hard to keep them secret for two-plus years instead of 10 months. It’s an incredibly laborious process though, between having to come up with all of the recipe ideas, test and retest them while making sure I measure and time everything that I'm doing, writing out both the intros and the recipes themselves, and shooting and editing all of the photos, as well as the accompanying videos that will be used both as instructional videos for readers and for social media promotion of the book.

Social media is often the place where we put a “filtered” and “perfect” image of ourselves online yet you chose to share your recipe creating process online, including trial and errors as well as times when you reach out to others for help—why did you choose to share all the nitty-gritty rather than appearing like a perfect chef online?

I don't want people to ever feel intimidated about cooking, especially since I really want people to try making all of the dishes in the cookbook. Everyone makes mistakes in the kitchen. I especially wanted to show the "uglier" versions of dishes where I tried out recipes purely for taste and flavour, because that's going to be the likely scenario for most people trying out a recipe for the first time. While I had to remake dishes to get them picture perfect for the book, home cooking doesn't need to be that way. Things get messy, and that's part of the fun in cooking.

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