Lately, social media postings of economy rice, also known ‘cai fan’ or mixed rice, charged at different prices for the same meal, seem to be an increasingly common gripe among customers.
Economy rice has been a staple meal for generations of Singaporeans. Typically a rice-based meal found in hawker centres, coffee shops and food courts, customers can choose the food they want from a wide selection of dishes on display. This provides a convenient and affordable meal for many.
With high inflation in the past year, we have seen news articles lately about how economy rice is no longer that economical, or complaints about how prices are not always consistent.
The DollarsAndSense team decided to spend a week trying out the same economy rice meal multiple times in different regions of Singapore. Our aim was to find out how affordable a meal of 1 meat and 2 vegetables would be, and whether any of us would experience paying different prices for the same meal. We also wanted to see how much we would pay if we ordered fish, which is a notoriously expensive dish that many ‘cai fan’ pros would strongly advise us to avoid if the aim is to keep the cost of our meal low.
To keep things consistent. We choose 3 dishes that can easily be found in almost all economy rice stalls in Singapore. There are: Sweet and sour chicken/pork; beansprout; steamed egg
We will refer to this as our ‘standard meal’ in the article.
All photos taken by DollarsAndSense
Our DollarsAndSense ‘standard meal’ for the week
Starting at the east of Singapore – Pasir Ris, we got some interesting insights (and possibly a miscommunication?) in our first order.
One standard meal and another standard meal with fried fish. Total $11.50
I bought two packets of the standard meal. While ordering, I asked the stall operator how much the fried fish cost and he explained this depends on the size of the fish I selected. I asked for the smallest and he said it’s from $4. I pointed to the bigger pieces and he mentioned it would be $5.50 or more for the bigger pieces. I (thought I) bought the smallest piece.
The total I paid was $11.50 for two packets. It’s a strange price because assuming the fish was $4 (as quoted), $11.50 would mean that the price of the two standard meals is $7.50, or $3.75 a packet, which typically doesn’t happen in economy rice meal as it’s almost always rounded to the nearest 10-cent.
With this in mind, I came back the next day to order the same meal again. This time, I got a family member to order one standard meal first, waited a while, before ordering mine. I also asked for the price of a dory fish ($2) and added it to my standard meal.
$3.50 for the meal on the left. $5.50 for the meal on the right
No discrepancy this time round. We paid $3.50 for the standard meal (left photo above) and $5.50 for the standard meal ($3.50) with the dory fish ($2, right photo above). We returned a third time later that week and once again, the standard meal costs $3.50.
The same standard meal ($3.50) for the third time in a week
I’m not sure what went wrong with the first day order but I attribute it down to perhaps the fried fish costing $4.50 instead of the $4 I thought I heard. This would have made the two standard meals $7 ($11.50 – $4.50), or $3.50 per meal. It’s the logical deduction that makes sense.
|Day 1||2 X standard meals ($3.50 each)||One fried fish ($4 or $4.50)||$11.50|
|Day 2||2 X standard meals ($3.50 each)||One dory fish ($2)||$9|
|Day 3||1 X standard meal ($3.50)||$3.50|
Our Experience In Serangoon & Hougang
My colleagues living in the eastern central region of Singapore also followed my lead in ordering their standard economy rice meal for the week. Besides complaining about not wanting to eat sweet and sour chicken/pork for the next month, it was, otherwise, a relatively fuss-free experience for them. They paid $3.50 each for the standard meal both times they ordered.
Same economy rice meal ($3.50) at Serangoon on different days
Similar meals at Hougangon on different days. $3.50 each
My colleague also enquired about the cost of fish and was quoted a (reasonable) fixed price.
Food Court In Woodlands
Over in the northern region of Singapore, an economy rice stall that my colleague found was within a food court. As most of us know, food courts in Singapore are not the ideal places to go to if the aim is to find the cheapest possible meal. Nevertheless, the location was convenient for our colleague who wanted to find a meal within walking distance of his home.
At $4.20, this standard meal was the most expensive compared to the other locations we went to. However, do note this was bought at a food court.
$4.20 at a food court in Woodlands
We went again later in the week, this time, adding a dory fish which was quoted at $3.50, or more for bigger pieces. The meal costs $7.70 ($4.20 + $3.50), which is consistent with what the price was the first time.
$4.20 for the standard meal and $3.50 for the dory fish for a total of $7.70
Are Economy Rice Cheaper & Better In The CBD?
We saved the best for the last.
Having tried the same economy rice meal in different neighbourhoods in Singapore, we returned to our CBD office at Tanjong Pagar. At DollarsAndSense, we have a go-to coffee shop when it comes to getting quality and affordable ‘cai fan’ and we wanted to see how it measures up against the rest.
Our co-founder Dinesh – a self-professed seafood lover – took it upon himself to not only order the same ‘cai fan’ meal twice (actually thrice, but we messed up one of the orders by taking another person (cheaper) vegetarian meal) but to order the biggest piece of fish he could find at the stall.
Standard meal costs $3.40 each. The pomfret cost $5 and entirely covered the rice on the plate
The standard meal, ordered separately by another person, costs $3.40. The standard meal with the additional whole fried pomfret fish costs $8.40, with the pomfret being quoted at $5, which in Dinesh’s view, is an absolute steal. Can you even get this fish at the market at this price was his remark to me.
On a separate day, he also ordered the standard meal with the add-on of a dory fish fillet ($2) that costs $5.40.
Standard meal ($3.40) with dory fish fillet ($2) for a total of $5.40
The standard meal was ordered a third time on another day and it also cost $3.40. However, as mentioned earlier, we don’t have the photo as we accidentally took another person’s vegetarian meal.
|Day 1||1 X standard meal||One whole pomfret ($5)||$8.40|
|Day 2||1 X standard meal||One steam dory fish ($2)||$5.40|
|Day 3||1 X standard meal||$3.40|
What We Learned: Economy Rice Remains Relatively Affordable & Fish Isn’t Always That Expensive
After more than a week of eating largely the same economy rice meal, here are some of our thoughts.
At the base level when we ordered one meat and two vegetables (steamed egg is considered a vegetable), the price is relatively affordable at about $3.40 to $3.50. Only once, at the food court, did we find ourselves paying more than $4.
While we were hoping to discover examples of how we paid varied prices each time for the same economy rice meal, this wasn’t what we experienced and we paid relatively affordable and consistent prices, perhaps with the exception of one occasion where we likely bought a fish that was more expensive than we thought it would be. However, the limitations in our orders were that we only choose standard items that can be easily found at all economy rice stalls. Perhaps if we had chosen meat dishes like drumsticks or cutlets where size may differ, this could have made it tricker.
Fish naturally costs more with prices observed at a minimum of $2 or more. Stall operators told us on more than one occasion that prices may differ depending on the size of the fish we choose. To us, this makes sense and follows a similar logic to how it’s like buying a fish at the wet market or ordering one at a restaurant, where the actual price we pay will depend on the weight of the fish purchased.
Similar to ordering fish at a seafood restaurant, it’s best to just ask for the price of the fish, before deciding whether or not to order one. All of the servers at the economy rice stall could immediately tell us the price (or price range) of the fish when we ask and we never felt embarrassed to not order the fish after hearing its price.
Price Transparency In Economy Rice Stall
Finally, we found that many of the economy rice stalls provide price transparency when it comes to how much their dishes cost, or what constitutes as meat or vegetable.
While the price shown isn’t always prominently displayed as compared to ordering a plate of chicken rice, it provides some reference for those who wish to refer to a price menu, or at the very least, helps provide some clarity if there is a price dispute.
All in all, at about $3.50 for a meal of one meat and two vegetables, we would say that an economy rice meal at a coffee shop still provides decent value for money. However, do ask for the prices of fish and other seafood dishes if you intend to order them.
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