WHAT CAN I do about the high cost of food? That is a question that just about every meal planner in the world seems to be asking. One nutritious answer comes from the resourceful people of the Far East.

For thousands of years, the Chinese, Japanese and many other nationalities have relied almost completely on the soybean for low-cost, high-quality protein. They have incorporated many soy products into their regular daily meals, including tofu, or beancurd.

Tofu contains 50 percent protein, while lean prime beef contains only 20 percent. And the soy protein is good quality. It also is rich in vitamin E, B, vitamin, calicium, iron, phosphorous, potassium and sodium, with low cholesterol, virtually no saturated fats, and a very low ratio of calories. Finally, at current prices, the daily allowance of protein (100 grams for an average person) from soy will cost about 40 cents, while the same amount from prime porterhouse steak, including a reasonable proportion of bone and fat, will cost $6.50.

My problem with tofu is that although I realize it is good for me, I still find it pretty dull in taste and texture. It taste a bit like plain yogurt and has the texture of a softly baked egg custard. I didn't discover an appealing way to prepare it until recently, when I spent a few days in Hong Kong and dined in some of its magnificent Sichuan restaurants. Everywhere the most memorable main dish is a fiery version of beancurd called "ma po-tofu." It has the marvelous Sichuan double-whammy of each mouthful providing the punch of pepper, followed by a soothing aromatic interlude, followed by a second hit of heat.

The most exciting version of this dish in Hong Kong was at the best Sichuan restaurant in town, the Red Pepper. After dinner my interpreter and I talked to the "No. 1 cook," who gave me his recipe for the ma po tofu and told me (with a slight smirk) curd." That was the understatement of the decade! But it was a wonderful way to consume tofu.

I soon found by expermenting that it is very easy to control the degree of fire in the dish by slightly varying the amounts of two or three of the ingredients. I have had no difficulty in finding the authentic products, in bottled or canned form, in Chinese food shops, in health food stores, and even in some supermarkets. I find that you can give it a more attractive chewy texture if you boil it for a few minutes in chickes bouillon, or even in watr, before using it in the most excellent Sichuan recipe. SICHUAN MA PO TOFU (Fried Beancurd with Hot BeefSauce) (4 servings) 4 cups clear chicken bouillon 1 1/2 pounds tofu (beancurd), cut into 1/2 inch cubes 1 cup minced lean beef (about 1/4 pound) 2 tablespoons dry white wine 2 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch 4 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 tablespoon Sichuan hot bean sauce 2 tablespoons light soy sauce 1 teaspoon hot pepper oil 3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced 2 teaspoons peeled, minced, fresh ginger root (1/2-inch piece) 1/4 cup green peas, fresh or frozen 8 medium mushrooms, wiped clean and diced Crystal sea salt or koshersalt, to taste Boiled white rice Whole Sichuan peppercorns 1/4 cup minced green scallion tops 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil

In a 2-quart saucepan, heat bouillon to barely simmering. Gently drop in rofu cubes and adjust heat so that broth is barely simmering. Cover with lid and continue simmering until tofu becomes a bit chewy, usually in about 1k minutes. Simmer longer if chewier tofu is desired, but do not overcook. Then carefully lift out the cubes with a slotted spoon and hold them on a plate to drain, reserving broth. Some of the bouillon will be used in this dish (see below); the rest can be used for excelent soup.

While the tofu is simmering, start preparing other ingredients. With the Sichuan fast-cooking technique, it is absolutely essential that you prepare all the ingredients beforehand and set tem out in line within easy reach. In a 1-pint bowl, combine beef, wine and 1/2 teaspoon of cornstarch. Set aside, covered, until needed. Do all the other chopping and slicing jobs, as indicated in the list of ingredients, holding each item, perferably covered, in a small bowl or jar.

When the tofu cubes have drained, heat the wok at highest temperature for exactly 1 minute. Add vegetable oil. The moment the oil starts smoking, hiss in the beef mixture and stir-fry for no more than 13 seconds. Add tofu, hot bean sauce, soy sauce and hot pepper oil. Stir-fry for exactly 10 more seconds, then begin turning down the heat to control the bubbling so that it continues fairly heavily but not furiously. Stir in 1/4 cup chicken bouillon, garlic, ginger roots, peas, mushrooms and salt. Let mixture boil, stirring, until peas are tender but still chewy, usually in about 1 minute. Thicken sauce in the classic Sichuan way by putting 2 teaspoons of cornstarch into the wok ladle. Then adding just enough cold water (usually about 1 tablespoon) to liquify the cornstarch. Then, teaspoon by teaspoon, work it into the contents of the wok until the sauce is about the consistency of heavy cream. Add more salt and peppery ingredients, if desired.

Serve at once, on very hot plates, on a bed of boiled white rice. Garnish each serving with a few whole Sichuan peppercorns, a sprinkling of green scallions, and a few drops of sesame oil.

NOTE: Instead of beef, this dish also can be made with minced chicken, pork, or shrimp. The method would be exactly the same.