Also known as qat, chat or miraa, khat (Catha edulis) is a slow-growing shrub endemic to the highlands of the Horn of Africa, where it has been cultivated as a stimulant for millennia. The plant’s edible leaf is a legal stimulant in most parts of Arabia and the Horn, where it is popular with Muslims, whose religion forbids them from drinking alcohol. Classified as a drug of abuse by the World Health Organization, it is nevertheless regarded as less harmful and less addictive than either tobacco or alcohol.
The hills around Harar produce what is widely claimed to be the world’s finest khat, much of which is exported to neighbouring Somaliland. But it is also consumed abundantly in Harar. Walk into any hotel or restaurant, and you can expect to encounter a group of locals whiling away the afternoon over a mini-forest of khat leaves – a process that involves several hours of jaw-numbing mastication before the desired affect is achieved.
Khat is an acquired taste. The leaves are very bitter, even when supplemented with a spoonful of sugar, or a sweet soft drink. And the reward for all that rumination is slim: a light (some say almost imperceptible) buzz, no more potent, albeit different in quality, to the after-effects of a beer or a couple of strong espressos. Still, should you want to try it yourself, khat is totally legal in Ethiopia, very cheap and easily purchased, though it’s worth taking along a trustworthy local to ensure you obtain premium-quality young leaves.