For my international readers who are not exactly acquainted with our local culture, Economical Rice, or what we locals like to call Cai Fan, is a dish where you pair a serving of steamed white rice with vegetables, meat and fish dishes of your choice. There is anywhere between 10 to 30 dishes to choose from, and they’re always displayed in a glass case or behind a transparent plastic board, making them one of the most recognisable and mildly iconic storefronts in Singapore. It is, like its name suggests, economical, as they’re usually the cheapest option for a complete meal in a food court or kopitiam (coffee shop).
If you’re a local, I’m sure you have stumbled upon the following picture that went viral several times over on social media:
Apparently, you can manipulate the person serving into giving you a larger portion. It seems simple enough to execute right? You just had to request for “more rice” instead of “add rice”, order the meat dishes instead of the vegetables next and then act really restless and indecisive, much like your MP during the Meet-the-MP session.
While the explanations seemed logical enough as to why the methods would apparently work, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.
Just ask CNN.
Anyway, to quench my curiosity, I decided to set up an experiment to see if the myth is, indeed, just a myth.
I got my friend, C, who prefers to hide his identity behind a single alphabet, to help me along with this test.
- I would first go up to order like how many would usually do; vegetables before meat and rushing throughout my order.
- C would do the same 15 mins later, except this time, he’ll follow the ‘tips’.
Regarding size, C is the same gender as me, around the same age as me, about the same height and size as me, but just slightly uglier than me.
We also made sure the person attending to the both of us was the same to ensure maximum accuracy going into the experiment.
The dishes I was planning to order were Ku Lo Yuk (sweet and sour pork), long beans and tofu, which were all quantifiable to a reasonable extent. I made some changes along the way as some of the stalls did not sell the mentioned dishes.
All the dishes were ordered between 12-2pm.
To measure the mass of the food, I opted for a manual scale as, firstly, they’re more accurate in my opinion, and secondly, I don’t have a digital one. Interestingly though, the readings are all in multiples of five, so no rounding up or down was required. I’m not saying my results aren’t reliable, but I’d say my numbers (for mass) do have a margin of error of ±1g.
Yew Tee Point
Let’s start with the Economy Rice stall at Yew Tew Point (basement food court).
I received a healthy serving of rice, along with 13 pieces of Ku Lo Yuk weighing 80g, five pieces of tofu, and 50g of vegetables. When C went to purchase the exact dish with the tips in mind, he came back with slightly more rice and 12 pieces of Ku Lo Yuk weighing 70g. There were, however, only four pieces of tofu, along with 45g of vegetables, again, 5g ‘lighter’ than what I was served.
Difference: Slightly more rice, -1 pc of Ku Lo Yuk, -1 pc of tofu, -5g of vegetables Did it work? It backfired.
Shortly after that, I made my way to Woodlands Mart’s Koufu, and ordered essentially the same thing. There were long beans, so I bought them instead of cai xin as they’re more quantifiable.
Again, the amount of rice I received was decent. There were ten pieces of Ku Lo Yuk weighing 65g, four pieces of tofu and 63 pieces of long beans weighing 80g in total. C received more or less the same amount of rice, nine pieces of Ku Lo Yuk weighing 60g, three pieces of tofu, and 54 pieces of long beans weighing in at 65g.
Difference: No notable difference in rice portion, -1 pc of Ku Lo Yuk, -1 pc of tofu, -11 pcs of long beans
Did it work? Backfired again.
Lastly, I headed to 888 Plaza to finish off the experiment. To change things up a li’ll, I asked C to work his manipulation first.
They ran out of Ku Lo Yuk, which was a pity, so the closest thing that would still quantifiable were the beef slices.
The portion of rice was notably larger than the other two stalls in the article, and they didn’t skimp on the portions of their dishes. I received 12 slices of beef, six pieces of tofu and 80 pieces of long beans weighing 95g. C got the same amount of rice, nine slices of beef, five pieces of tofu and 60 pieces of long beans, 25% less and 30g lighter than what I received.
Difference: No notable difference in rice portion, -3 slices of beef, -1 pc of tofu, -20 pcs of long beans
backfire work? What do you think? It is worth noting that this stall was the cheapest yet provided the largest serving.
To be honest, I am terribly surprised at what I found out. It was definitely something I wasn’t expecting. Not only did the tips fail miserably, it achieved the opposite effect instead. Across all three stalls, there were a contextually marked difference in portions between the normal and ‘manipulated’ versions of the same food. The amount of both meat and vegetables decreased, rendering the slightly larger portion of rice a scant consolation.
I wouldn’t assume the tips were deceiving though, as there were a couple of factors that could contributed to such a lop-sided finding. Okay, maybe just one. The businesses could have taken note of the tips and instructed their staff to be indifferent to people who decide to try their luck. After all, it has been well over three years since this image made its rounds on the interwebs.
Maybe C felt insecure that his looks were inferior to mine and let that distract him from doing his job well, but I was there watching him and he did execute the tips quite superbly. Maybe the middle-aged staff had a thing for man buns and felt inclined to give me a larger serving. Or maybe, the tips didn’t live up to its psychological billing after all.
Whatever the case is though, try smiling and greeting the person serving you before ordering. That, maybe, is the only foolproof way to get more than what you’ve asked for.
If you enjoyed this article, I’ll appreciate if you shared it with your friends and family on your social networks. Do follow me on Instagram @wenkai31 and Facebook, that’ll be awesome.
They might not work for me, but do the Cai Fan tips work for you? Share your experiences with me in the comments below!
For any advertising, photography/videography/graphic design assignments, sponsorships, or enquiries, please get in touch with me at email@example.com
The most singaporean thing I ever read. Trying to manipulate something as simple as a plate of rice lol
Probably just a simple reason like: you more handsome than C so in a way “likeable” to have more Cai Fan. :) Anyway nice write-up and photos and effort!
Hi Smint! You have solved the mystery! Thanks for your kind words and have a great day!
maybe you can also test out individual tips on its own… and see if ANY of them work by itself… perhaps a combination of all the above caused the whole thing to backfire… like someone who has mentioned above that asking for more rice at the start might cause the server to give less later on since the plate or packet will look more full…
and if asking for more rice really did cause the ingredients amount to drop… perhaps then can try asking for LESS rice (freeing up more space on the plate)… and see if the ingredients will end up more..!
Good ideas Wee Kiat! I thought of all these, but Im not going to spend so much to test a simple myth out… after all, it’s not a research paper. Thanks for reading!
Kiasu Level: Singaporean
Hi, interesting experiment. Could you switch roles with C and maybe hit a few other places? Just curious whether you have some imperceptible advantage over C in the fine art of cai fan ordering.
Hi Hugo! If you have some cash to spare me I’ll be glad to oblige!
maybe you should try the experiment without the asking for more rice. i suspect that leads to the caifan server being thrown slightly off (which in his head he thinks he has already given more), and with extra rice on the plate the server is likely to give less of the dishes since the plate already looks full.
of course i have no idea if the ‘lingering finger’ technique works in reality. however, in my experience it’s helpful to keep going back to the same caifan stall as when they recognise you as a regular, they tend to give more. :)
That’s a plausible explanation. Maybe I’ll try it some other time. The ‘lingering finger’ thinghy seemed logical imo though, because if someone isn’t used to getting a lot of pressure, the increased tension will indeed subconsciously force them to give a larger serving. I was actually quite surprised when it didn’t work. Yup, a regular would definitely warrant a larger serving! Thanks for reading!
“I got my friend, C, who prefers to hide his identity behind a single alphabet”
Err… the alphabet has 26 letters. You probably mean a single letter. But then again, it would be easier to hide behind all 26 letters instead of just one letter. :-)
Haha Al! My bad. Thanks for reading tho.
this is great work! hahaha youve done an invaluable service to Singapore, thanks once more
Try to be cheery. Make small humourous talk and always treat the workers with respect and tact. You will find them reciprocating. That is where you will get not only larger portions but also free stuff. It helps if you are big sized or fat cos they sub consciously feel you need more and will give you more.
The last sentence was quite helpful! Maybe I’ll edit the piece and include your tip!
I was helping my mom at her food stall and found ppl who tapped on the glass non stop very annoying and i would just be obliviously and give similar/lesser amount of food.
Asking for alittle more rice is als annoying and i would then clarify with them that extra rice cost 20cents. Oh their faces then revealed so much displeasure that their trick did not work. Another thing too! I have no idea why singaporeans ask for more chilli but few ever finish it? Eat first, not enough, chilli finish, ask for more lah. Ultimately, the goal is to be nice, smile, be friendly and give positive comments that the food taste really awesome, pretty sure the server would be happy to feed you with a little extra and you would be happy too.
Hi Y! Thanks for sharing your insight! I’ll be sure to update my piece with your intel!
Great first attempt at testing the hypothesis, just a pity the sample size of 3 wasn’t too rigorous!
Hi yong! Thanks for reading! Unfortunately, I do not have the budget to increase the sample size to five, or even seven. Three worked pretty well in my opinion since it’s the optimum number, and the lopsided outcome led me to believe that two more stalls would lead to similar results anyway :)