How to Make Vitumbua, the Delicious Tanzanian Street Snack
Vitumbua (singular is kitumbua) are a street snack in Tanzania made with rice, coconut, sugar, yeast and aromatic spices. They were one of my favorite foods when I lived in East Africa, and watching the Mamas flip them was always a real treat. The traditional way is to start the day before by making your own rice flour, but you can “cheat” (like I did) and buy finely ground rice flour instead. Vitumbua are fluffy, full of flavor, gluten-free and completely vegan. Try making these Tanzanian coconut rice balls at home!
Recipe for vitumbua, vegan coconut rice balls
Makes 30-40 balls
21 g (0.75 oz) fresh yeast
60 ml (1/4 cup) lukewarm water
1 tsp brown sugar
415 ml (1 3/4 cup) low fat coconut milk
100 g (1/2 cup) brown sugar
225 g (1 1/2 cup) rice flour, finely ground
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cardamom
Sunflower, coconut or another vegetable oil for frying
- Pan with half spherical molds — e.g., Japanese takoyaki, Danish æbleskriver or Indian paniyaram pan
- Blender or food processor
- Barbecue skewer, toothpick or chopstick
1. Start by activating the fresh yeast. This step of the process takes around 25 minutes. Crumble 21 grams of fresh yeast in a bowl then add 60 ml (1/4 cup) of lukewarm water. The temperature of the water should be between 32 and 38oC (90 and 100oF); water that is too hot or too cold will not work. Gently stir the yeast water with a spoon until the yeast is fully dissolved. Add 1 teaspoon brown sugar and continue to stir until the sugar is mostly dissolved. Let the yeast sit for 20 minutes to activate.
2. While the yeast is activating, measure and prepare the other ingredients. You may need to warm the coconut milk in a pan if the solids and liquids have separated. Check the temperature of the warmed coconut milk. If it’s too hot (over 38oC/100oF), let it cool so that it doesn’t kill the activated yeast.
3. Once the yeast is active it will look foamy, bubbly or expand as if it has grown. (It has!) Combine rice flour, yeast, sugar, nutmeg, cardamom and coconut milk in a blender or food processor and blend gently until smooth.
4. Transfer the blended mixture into a bowl and cover with a cloth. Let sit for 4 hours out of direct sunlight. Stir once around the 90-minute mark. The mixture should (at least) double in size.
5. Just before the 4 hours are up, heat the pan on medium to medium-low heat. Add 1/4 teaspoon oil to each well. If using a cast-iron pan, brush the inside of each well with the oil. (This is also recommended, but not necessary, for a Teflon pan.)
6. Wait til the pan is hot, then pour the vitumbua mixture into each well. Do not completely fill the well, leave a little space from the top. Cook for 6-7 minutes (depending on the heat). Insert the barbecue skewer at an angle, not straight down, into the kitumbua and turn over. Cook the other side until golden brown (around 3-4 minutes).
7. Place each kitumbua on a cloth or paper towel to absorb excess oil. Serve warm. Tanzanians like to eat vitumbua with a cup of tea.
- See wikiHow for a step-by-step video on how to activate fresh yeast.
- You can substitute the fresh yeast for 1 tbsp active dry yeast.
- For a less sweet kitumbua, use coconut sugar instead of brown sugar.
- Stirring the coconut rice mixture around the 90-minute mark makes for fluffier vitumbua.
- For vitumbua, a Teflon pan is an absolute godsend! You use a lot less frying oil and still get that golden brown outer shell.
- Make sure your pan is thoroughly cleaned and/or seasoned. Stuck-on foods will make turning the vitumbua nearly impossible.
- Temperature is important. If the pan is too hot, or not hot enough, it will burn the outside of the kitumbua and leave the inside partially uncooked. I like to place the pan on a medium burner with medium heat, and make sure the pan is hot before frying.
- Much like pancakes, you’ll see bubbles form as the vitumbua cook. When all the bubbles pop the kitumbua is almost ready to flip. Check that the other rings of the ball are opaque and cooked completely through. You should be able to easily rotate the kitumbua in the pan before flipping.
- For a bigger rice ball, before you turn over the kitumbua, move it to the side, add more mixture to well and put the cooked half on top. To see a Tanzanian home cook do just that, check out Aroma of Zanzibar’s vitumbua video.
Vitumbua taste best when they’re warm and fresh!
To make your own rice flour at home, rinse two cups of white rice (any kind will do), place in a bowl, cover with water (at least an inch) and let soak overnight. The next morning, drain the water and spread the rice out to dry over a cloth. Once dry put in a blender or food processor and blend to a fine consistency.
The biggest of thanks to M. Ngatunga and S. Teri-Moshi for all the recipe help. I wish we could teleport across continents and eat vitumbua together.