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Chaats are Indian snacks and appetizers, found widely throughout India at street stands, casual restaurants, and parties. Outside of India, they can be a bit more difficult to find, although in areas with a large Indian community, restaurants that specialize in chaat are not uncommon. Both in India and abroad, many people are quite fond of these snacks, which are almost like Indian fast food. They are generally flavorful, easy to eat with the hands, and incredibly varied, with options for everyone from vegans to devout Hindus.
In Hindi, the word chaat means “to taste,” and most are small dishes. People can combine multiple dishes to create a full meal, or simply eat one as a snack. They take advantage of the rich library of spices in the Indian kitchen, ranging from delicately spiced puffed crisp breads known as puris to extremely spicy parathas, stuffed breads that may be filled with anything from potatoes to ground lamb. They also feature various pulses, meats, and vegetables from both India and abroad.
Like Indian cuisine in general, chaat is quite diverse. Many regions of India have specific specialties that are hard to find anywhere else, and some are limited to distinctive districts within Indian cities or provinces. A typical chaat stand serves its products on disposable plates or banana leaves, or wrapped in paper for convenience, and provides plenty of napkins to customers.
Many chaats are deep-fried, like pakoras and samosas, and they may be sweet or savory. They are designed as finger food, and eating one can be a noisy, messy experience. Many are self-contained, like stuffed breads, while others come with a side of soft bread that is used to scoop up the item. A variety of dipping sauces like yogurt raita and spicy ground chili dips are served with them, along with relishes and various garnishes.
A typical chaat stand in India may specialize in only one or two items that are prepared fresh to order. Larger establishments such as sit down eateries may have a range appetizers on offer, along with traditional Indian drinks like lassi. They can also be made at home, either as a standalone meal of mixed chaats or in the form of appetizers for a larger Indian meal.