Jen Balisi lives a dreamy life. She travels, eats, and blogs about eating and cooking — a lot of cooking! After almost a year of development, her new cookbook, Indulgent Eats at Home, is available for pre-order.
Jen Balisi came to Hong Kong with her husband in 2017 after almost ten years in New York City. Under the Instagram handle @IndulgentEats, she boasts a whooping 366,000 followers — and that number is only growing. With her bright smile, cheery attitude and easy-to-follow recipes, she’s the darling of the social media food sphere, and now, has a cookbook to boot.
“I’m incredibly proud to have a cookbook that’s not just about cooking good food or Instagrammable dishes, but something that can bring us together by bridging gaps between cultures and fostering connection both for those cooking these meals with family and friends and virtually between all of my followers,” she says. “Every recipe has a QR code that drives to a webpage with video content and a comments section so readers can interact with me and with each other.”
With pre-orders starting now, we catch up with her to learn more about her process, dishes and more.
When did you discover your love for cooking and have you always enjoyed it?
Growing up in a Filipino household, food is at the heart of every activity so I’ve always loved home-cooked food. I grew up helping my parents with menial kitchen tasks, like rolling up lumpia (Filipino spring rolls) or watching over stews, and always cooked versions of garlic fried rice for myself whenever I was hungry from middle school onwards.
However, I didn’t truly learn how to cook for myself until I studied abroad in Prague during my time at NYU. There weren’t many good restaurants there at the time — and absolutely zero Filipino food — so I learned how to make classic dishes like chicken adobo, sinigang (a tamarind-based soup) and tinola (chicken cooked in a ginger broth) from my mom over Skype.
Tell us more about your @IndulgentEats Instagram account?
I originally started it as a food blog in 2011. I was working as a digital marketing manager at American Express in NYC, and my growing salary gave me the opportunity to dine out more in New York City, travel to new destinations, and try three Michelin-starred restaurants for the first time.
I wanted to document all of these experiences and, at the same time, also started teaching myself how to create new recipes. I would promote my blog posts on my personal Instagram, but as I gained followers, I eventually created a food-specific account because at the time, I was uncomfortable having lots of strangers following me. My account slowly grew to 20K followers by 2015, then skyrocketed in growth to 200K followers in 2016 until I eventually took things full-time in 2017.
Was there a specific moment that inspired you to compile a cookbook?
I’ve always had a dream of making my own cookbook, having watched Food Network from a young age and seeing both celebrity chefs and successful food bloggers with their own cookbooks. It wasn’t until my publisher, Page Street Publishing, reached out to me after being fans of my Instagram account that I decided to finally put pen to paper and come up with a concept for it.
I wanted it to be an extension of everything Indulgent Eats is about: showcasing seriously delicious food from a wide range of cuisines that looks as good as it tastes, all inspired by the talented chefs and must-visit restaurants that you already find on my Instagram page.
All of the recipes are grouped by the type of dish with fun hashtags (like #SendNoods #WinnerWinnerChickenDinner and #PocketsofLove) in order to show the similarities of dishes across cultures, and each one comes with the stories behind the food. There’s also easy QR code access to exclusive instructional video content, as well as the Instagram posts featuring the restaurants and food stalls that served as inspiration.
What did you find most challenging about the process?
Having to make things over and over and over! Sometimes it was to get the taste or texture of something right, other times it was because I forgot to write down how much salt I used, or because something got messed up in the final plating so it wasn’t picture perfect.
Being a perfectionist definitely didn’t help the situation, but it can be incredibly frustrating to spend so much time on a single recipe when there are 60 to make. All of that being said, I know the final payoff will be worth it in the end when people are cooking and trying a delicious dish in their own kitchens.
Tell us about some of your favourite recipes in the book.
All of the noodle recipes rank near the top, since they’re so good and so easy (think miso-carbonara style Umami Bomb Udon and flavour-packed Brown Butter Soy Garlic Spaghetti). The Spicy Tingly Pork Abura Soba is the one I’m most proud of though, since it mashes up my favourite Sichuan/Shaanxi flavours with my favourite Japanese brothless noodles. It also has the most drool-worthy yolk porn!
The #PocketsofLove chapter also holds a number of favourites, like Lamb Masala Dumplings with Cucumber Mint Raita and the Juicy AF Xianbing inspired by local institution Islam Food. But if you could only make one recipe here, try the Cheesy Pork and Plantain Empanadas — it brings Latin flavours to your kitchen and also teaches you a number of cooking techniques, like slow cooking a large cut of marinated pork, making and rolling out flaky pastry dough from scratch, and deep frying.
What is something different you noticed about the food culture in Hong Kong compared to New York?
The starkest difference is probably the focus on excess here in Hong Kong, from lavish buffets and free flow meals to the sometimes overkill of premium ingredients like uni, wagyu and abalone. While it’s definitely fun and delivers lots of delicious meals, I do miss New York’s culture of having deep pride in finding and praising cheap eats of all cuisines. People will travel an hour or more by train just to try the best Venezuelan arepas from a street cart or Georgian khinkali from a beachside Russian and Eastern European community.
While this behaviour can exist in small pockets in Hong Kong, there’s obviously a wider diversity in food that comes as a product of immigration, and cheaper rents allow small mom and pop immigrant-owned businesses to flourish more in New York City, whereas you often pay a premium for non-Chinese food here in Hong Kong because it’s harder to find.
With the benefit of hindsight, what’s one piece of advice you wish you’d been given at the beginning of this cookbook journey?
Write absolutely everything down! I mentioned this earlier, but I wasted a lot of time re-cooking dishes I made in the earlier part of the cookbook process because I couldn’t remember how much of a certain ingredient I used. I also wish I planned out my cooking schedule a little better, so I wouldn’t be so rushed at the end trying to finish recipe testing every dish.