Filipina content creator Jen Balisi is known in the international food circle as the lady behind the blog and Instagram account Indulgent Eats, where she features travel experiences and “drool-worthy recipes and mind-blowing menu items.” She also dabbles in putting up Filipino-focused pop-up restaurants in New York and Hong Kong, and last year released her own cookbook entitled “Indulgent Eats at Home: 60 Crave-Worthy Recipes Inspired by the World's Most Instagram-Famous Food.”
Early this year, the New York University marketing and international business graduate made a big leap by opening a modern Filipino restaurant at HK’s Central District called Barkada, together with hospitality group Singular Concepts. We first got to know the food influencer-turned-restaurateur thru a touching Mother’s Day post about Barkada’s bestselling dessert called “My Mom’s Cassava Cake.” In the Instagram reel, Jen says it makes her so proud to have named it “after the woman whose sacrifices made this dream [the restaurant] possible in the first place.”
Jen’s mother, Joy, comes from a poor family in Bicol. Her parents raised Joy and her seven siblings thru poultry farming. “She always told us how she would walk in the mud for miles just to get to school every day,” Jen recalls to ANCX. The desire to give her family a better life became the Bicolana’s greatest motivation to finish a nursing degree and seek greener pastures in the United States.
When Joy got a job as a nurse in the US in the late 1980s, she already had a family of her own. Which led her to make a few sacrifices, like leaving her husband and firstborn back home in the Philippines. In those early years, she was on her own in New Jersey, with no family to take care of her when she gave birth to Jen, her second child.
Joy’s perseverance eventually paid off. She was able to bring the rest of her family to the US and fulfill their American dream. Jen tells ANCX that her mother’s family home in Bicol has been renovated, thanks to Joy’s help. “Going back there, it kind of grounds you and reminds you where your parents came from and how hard they worked to provide better lives for us,” Jen says.
Pinay at heart
Jen may have spent her whole childhood in the US but she’s very Filipina at heart. This is because she grew up surrounded by Filipinos. “My mom had her Filipino nurse friends and so I grew up always going to family parties, eating buffet lines of Filipino food,” she says. They lived in a community in New Jersey with many Pinoys so she even grew up attending Simbang Gabi during Christmastime.
Cassava cake was something her mother would often make for parties and get-togethers. Jen says it’s possibly because frozen grated cassava was very accessible in the US, and also because of the influence of her father who hails from Laguna, where coconut-based desserts are popular. “I grew up always eating buko pie and cassava cake,” offers Jen.
Having dinners at home was a well-kept family tradition. “Every night, [my parents] would cook dinner and we would watch ‘Jeopardy’ or whatever was on TV. There were certain dishes that we had every week, like adobo and tinola.” Their family would fly back to Philippines for vacations every two or four years.
Passion for cooking
It was when she studied for a semester in Prague that Jen discovered her penchant for cooking. “There was no Asian food, let alone Filipino food. So I was like, ‘Oh crap, I have to learn how to make this myself.’ That's the first time I learned how to cook Filipino food for myself,’” she says.
After graduating at NYU, Jen worked at American Express in New York City, while pursuing her growing passion for food thru blogging starting in 2011. Four years after, she put up Indulgent Eats, where she talks about her wonderful discoveries on traveling, home-cooking, trying out cheap eats, street carts, and multi-course Michelin-starred meals.
Eventually, when her husband, who works in finance, got a job opportunity to work in Hong Kong, Jen decided to quit her work at AMEX and turn Indulgent Eats into a full-time job. In HK, she got to meet a lot of restaurant owners and chefs through her blog—until Covid put everything to a halt. It was perfect timing that a publisher reached out to her and gave her an opportunity to write her book. She worked on this over the pandemic and “Indulgent Eats at Home” was released around April last year.
The “eats” in the book are predominantly Asian, although she says she loves pasta, burgers and pizza. “There's a whole chapter on different dumplings around the world,” Jen adds. “The whole goal of the cookbook was to show the many similarities you can find across cultures and the different ways a lot of different cultures are bridged together.”
As she was promoting the cookbook, she was also doing pop-ups, collaborating with restaurants she had built relationships with both in Hong Kong and in New York. She concocted longganisa pizzas for New York's famous pizzerias Razza and Mama’s TOO! “That was kind of an initial foray into really introducing these flavors, like being a gateway into [Filipino] flavors for people who have never had longganisa before.”
She also did a monthlong pop-up at Alvy’s in Hong Kong, where people got to try her sisig pizza. “Again, it was like most of the people who were going had never even heard of sisig and so it's cool to introduce them to kalamansi and all these flavors,” Jen says.
Dream come true
Jen remembers writing a business plan when she was in eight grade to put up a Southeast Asian, Filipino-focused restaurant. “That's been a dream of mine—to really promote the culture and cuisine that I've always been so proud of,” she says. “Luckily, Singular Concepts really believed in me and believed in that vision. And so that's kind of how Barkada came to be.”
She decided to put up a modern Filipino restaurant because while there are already dining spots in Hong Kong serving Filipino cuisine, they serve more traditional, homey dishes and are tucked away in different neighborhoods.
What she wants to do is serve Filipino food in a more trendy, fun, and modern environment at Central. “I really wanted to have a place that could really showcase Filipino food and introduce Filipino food to so many people who had either never had it before, or had misconceptions about our cuisine,” Jen says. “And so when I was presented with the opportunity for the restaurant, I knew that I always wanted to do a Filipino restaurant and be part of this global movement toward really promoting Filipino cuisine.”
It was important for her to have a place Filipinos can be truly proud of. “Here in Hong Kong, while Filipinos are considered the backbone of the society, working in different industries, we're not treated with the respect that I think we deserve,” Jen says. “I strongly believe that food is a gateway into getting people to understand cultures and a gateway towards empathy.”
Accessible and approachable
Jen says Barkada’s dishes take inspiration from different cultures, making it more accessible and approachable. Their Bicol Express, for instance has chicken instead of pork, since many people in Hong Kong don’t eat pork for various reasons. “My goal with Barkada is to bring as many people in, introduce Filipino cuisine to as many people as possible,” she offers.
Their Gising Gising, a crowd favorite, is vegan—green beans stewed in coconut milk and seasoned with vegan bagoong. This is served with crispy tofu puffs, for added texture and crispiness.
They serve sizzling sisig, too, but they use pork belly instead of pork face and ears. They also have salmon sisig for pescatarians and a mushroom version for vegans. “So it's really taking these same flavors but putting them in formats that allow more people to try Filipino food and fall in love with it,” says Jen.
Some of their cocktails are also Filipino inspired, like the Halo Halo After Dark, which has the flavors of the ube, kaong, nata de coco, mixed with rum and topped with coconut cream and nata de coco jellies. They also have Mangga Martini which infuses gin with dried mangoes, and is served with a dried mango on top. Their signature and bestselling Barkada Sour uses pandan and guava infused into the gin, with sticky rice syrup, and a bit of calamansi zest on top. “It has this very distinct tropical flavor, topped with a frothy rice foam, giving a clean, earthy ending.”
At the restaurant, a sign reads, “Come as strangers, leave as friends.” And that’s what the brand Barkada is all about, says Jen. “We want to welcome everyone in. We want to be inclusive.” Obviously, she also wants to showcase the best of Filipino hospitality. “We want people to come with their barkada, too. So that's definitely the vibe and the community we're trying to create.”
Photos courtesy of Barkada HK