People weren't engineered to like spicy food. Capsaicin, the hot chemical in chili peppers, was designed to repel mammals by causing pain in our mouths and on our lips as we grind up the pepper seeds. But somewhere along the way we humans decided that a little bit of pain makes everything so much nicer. Could that isolated pain alleviate the more endemic, soul-sucking pain of a wet Seattle winter? I made a little hot-food journey to find out.

I just watched Dr. No again, so my mind first alights on sunny Jamaica, where jerk seasoning can pack a special kind of excruciating, layered-pepper heat: Cayenne pepper gives you a short, sharp blast, black pepper heats you up for the long haul, and the merciless scotch bonnet pepper does you in. Meanwhile, soothing flavors like allspice and thyme comfort with their complexity, promising that there is more to life than pain. I head to Calypso Caribbean Kitchen looking for just this kind of tongue spanking and I try my best to let my waiter know that I'm cruising for heat: "Is it you know, spicy? Is it the hottest thing on your menu? I'm, you know, looking for some spice." Despite my hints, no one throws any extra cayenne into my (yawn!) boneless, skinless chicken breasts ($15.50). This particular jerk isn't the spanking type; it delivers more of a light tweak, and even that is further subdued by a sweet mango glaze. It's a passably pleasant meal, but I still cringe at the drizzle on the way out to the car.

Korea has cold winters—I know this from M*A*S*H—so Korean cooks must know how to heat a girl up. I've been meaning to get up to Hosoonyi for a while now: The Edmonds strip-mall restaurant is known for its soon-doo-boo, or soft tofu stew. My friend and I order one bowl ($6.95) with pork, kimchee, and the maximum four-star spiciness. Just to be safe, we also get one two-star seaweed version ($6.95). We wait, fretting a bit about just how hot our soup will be, and we snack a little too heavily on a crisp, yummy pancake studded with scallion and octopus snippets ($8.95). Before the soup arrives, our equally concerned waiter brings out a pitcher of ice water.

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The soon-doo-boo certainly looks devilish, served in superheated earthenware pots with a brick-red broth that seethes angrily around white curds of tofu. While it's still hissing, a server adds raw egg to the mix. We start off cautiously, coupling the stew with some rice, but the soup turns out to be pleasantly hot—no temple dabbing or hyperventilation, just a happy burn that dissipates fairly quickly. We can still taste the pork and kimchee that flavor the soup, and the texture is luscious; we end up ignoring the milder insurance soup. The weather is still dreary when we walk outside, but I am pleasantly warm and sleepy on the long drive home.

I grew up in notoriously wintry upstate New York, which, not coincidentally, is home to the Buffalo chicken wing, as close to a pure chili-delivery system as exists in this world. The Wingdome, with vinegar-scented air and flame-painted walls, takes me back. I settle on a 20-wing assortment ($14.99). The teriyaki wings are bland and blech; the Rasta wings are definitely hotter, if less nuanced than Calypso's jerk; the three-alarm fire wings—Wingdome's most popular—aren't spicy enough to be interesting; but one look at the six-alarm fire wings, and I know I'm in trouble. They are caked with a wet, seed-studded chili sauce. I chomp into one and think I can bear it, but at bite two, my lips and tongue can hardly stand it. I slam a glass of milk, which cools off my esophagus, but does nothing for my lips. I frantically dip celery into blue-cheese dressing and munch, but still it burns. I try using the dressing as a sort of lip balm. After five minutes the burning stops, and I am grateful to be alive and anywhere: wintertime Korea, Seattle, Buffalo, you name it, just as long as the burning is over.

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