The Italian Dish Traditionally Made With Donkey Meat

Certain types of Italian food have dominated the world. Pizza, for example, is the world's most popular food. The global pizza market is poised to reach a whopping $233 billion in 2023, according to research published by Business Wire. The average American also chows down on about 20 pounds of pasta per year (via Share the Pasta). With these impressive statistics, it's safe to say that these two Italian exports are widely recognized and eaten with gusto around the world.

However, Italian food goes far beyond pizza and pasta. There are a number of underrated and lesser-known Italian dishes you need to try at least once, like vitello tonnato and ossobuco alla Milanese. Another Italian specialty that's worth tasting: tapulone di Borgomanero. Here's everything you need to know about this dish. It's traditionally made from an unconventional meat you might not have tried before, and comes from the city of Borgomanero located in northern Italy.

What is tapulone di Borgomanero?

Tapulone di Borgomanero is a stew traditionally made from donkey meat and served with polenta (per Gordon Ramsay's Recipe), and it is usually eaten in Italy as a second course. Full of flavor, this recipe is very rich, and the meat is slow-cooked for at least two hours in red wine with garlic, rosemary, bay leaves, lard, butter, salt, and pepper. For those who haven't had donkey meat before, it tastes similar to veal and is delicious, Andrew Zimmern said in an interview with State Impact. 

This dish's place of origin, Borgomanero, is located in the Piedmont region of Italy, and the word tapulone comes from the Piedmontese word ciapulé, or chopping, since finely mincing the donkey meat is an essential step of preparing this local dish. Another similar Italian donkey-stew dish goes by the more straightforward name of stracotto d'asino (stew of donkey), as reported by Exploring Taste.

The legend behind tapulone di Borgomanero

Many traditional recipes have legends and mythologies behind them, and tapulone di Borgomanero is no exception. According to the Ufficio Cultura del Comune di Borgomanero, 13 men who were returning from a religious expedition on the island of San Giulio arrived at what is known today as Borgomanero. Perhaps due to the fresh and thin air of the area, their appetites were suddenly stimulated to a ravenous hunger. However, due to their devout piety, they had neglected to restock their provisions and the saddlebags designated for carrying food hung empty on the backs of their donkeys.

In order to satiate their appetites, their method of transporting food was transformed into the food itself. But since donkey meat is quite tough (per "Field Guide to Meat"), the hungry troupe of 13 had to cut the meat into small pieces and cook it over a fire. They decided the result was delicious, and the recipe has since been repeated.

Nutritional benefits of tapulone di Borgomanero

The donkey — scientific name equus asinus — is related to the horse, or equus caballus (per the "Field Guide to Meat"). Horse meat was acceptable to eat in France, but because donkey meat is so tough and has a strong order, it is more palatable as a stew or as sausages.

On a nutritional level, in comparison to other meats, donkey may be a healthier option as it contains more amino acids and protein. It has less fat, cholesterol, and calories than cuts from other animals, per WebMD, all while maintaining a similar taste profile to other red meats. Another health benefit of tapulone is that slow-cooked meats also may be healthier than grilled or broiled meats, according to Food & Nutrition, since this cooking process "can help reduce the number of cell-damaging compounds." Considering that tapulone is usually served with polenta, a grain that is low in calories but high in carbs (via Healthline), it means that all-around, this dish is fairly healthy.

How to try tapulone di Borgomanero

To eat tapulone di Borgomanero, one of course could travel to Borgomanero to taste the local specialty. The Hotel Ristorante Leon D'Oro at Lake Orta serves the traditional donkey stew, as reported by The Telegraph.

However, if one wants to make the dish, it's fairly simple: Begin by cooking onions and garlic in olive oil or butter, add bay leaves and rosemary and then the minced donkey meat, according to Villa Crespi. Buying donkey meat may be difficult (although it is apparently available for sale via Alibaba). But if you want to make tapulone, you can replace donkey meat with horse or beef. After the meat is added, slow cook it over low heat with lard. You can also add cabbage or mushrooms followed by a good amount of red wine until all the liquid is absorbed. For a visual guide on how to make tapulone, you can watch a demonstration on making the traditional Italian dish here from YouTuber AmaTV.