Twelve women sit on folding chairs in Melodie Phipps' Bethesda kitchen staring at a squishy white slab weakly accompanied by a sprig of parsley on a plate.

They do not laugh: This is Open University's most popular cooking class, "Tofu: The Meat Without the Bones."

Only three have worked with the custard-like substance before. "I've never touched it," offers Beth Slotkoff, a dental hygienist.

Phipps begins with an eggless egg salad recipe, works her way via Cuisinart through tofuna salad (adding kelp for a fishy taste) and a mock mayo. The class circulates paper plates for tastes of each dish.

Always ask the date for freshness and buy locally made tofu, Phipps instructs. Change the water as in an aquarium and drain or press the slab before using. "I don't think you could be poisoned by tofu," she says, "but when in doubt, throw it out."

Phipps' assistant Eric Macbeth wears a T-shirt emblazoned "Tofu makers flow with the g.o." G.o is soybean puree, he explains. He fries the tofu burgers to the consistency of hard quiche with grated carrots, while Phipps moves on to stir-fry tofu zucchini Mexicana, easier for beginners to swallow with its small white chunks of tofu veiled by vegetables and a spicy tomato sauce.

Next, banana-lemon fruit whip. What could be bad about eight ounces of tofu blended into oblivion with fruit, nutmeg, cinnamon, cashews and honey?

"That's fattening, you can taste it," says Slotkoff.

"It's not fair to say it's low in calories," Phipps admits. "But it's lower than chocolate cake."

There are guilty admissions of a preference for chocolate cake, but these are not in the spirit of the evening.

Still, a cynic is won over by Phipps' finale: tofu cheesecake topped with carob sauce and ground walnuts. Classmate Doris Nauman figures there are only 441 calories' worth of tofu in the whole cake, as opposed to the unthinkable count for cream cheese.

"Now," says fellow dental hygienist Judy Davis, "if we can just get our kids and husbands to eat it."

"Could you use it in recipes in place of cottage cheese?" another student asks. "There's also tofu cottage cheese . . ." Phipps replies.

y Soy cheese, the miracle substance for the '80s, the yogurt of the '90s. Staple of the Orient for 4,000 years. Much misunderstood.

What is it, where can you buy it? Why would anyone want it? Its virtue lies in not tasting like anything else, or, in fact, like anything at all.

What it lacks in flavor it makes up for in economy and nutrition. Less than a dollar a pound, tofu contains 50 percent protein compared to lean prime beef's 20. There's no argument: Protein-packed, low-calorie, cholesterol-free tofu can't hurt. Health-food stores stock the slabs of soybean curd in plastic tubs in refrigerated cases, and it's increasingly sold in dip or burger form. If looks could kill . . . and besides, it feels unappetizing. But don't knock it till you've fried it, and never, never disparage it in front of converts.

y "OUT OF BULK TOFU," reads a sign at the Bethesda Avenue Co-op, where normally it sells for 98 cents a pound. The co-op goes through one or two vats of organic bean curd each week. Customers fish out a chunk with a spoon or reach into the vat with a hand covered in a plastic bag.

At the cafe next door, chef Prem Shiven favors a hunk fried in sesame oil. "The texture resembles meat enough so that people used to meat can really get into it," he says. His dips, sandwich spread, steaks and lasagna are tofu creations. "It's tasteless, so it takes on the flavor of anything you add."

Chop it into cubes and it floats artistically in miso soup. Fry a chunk and it tastes like chicken, according to devout consumers. They say it spares calories as well as an animal's life. Can we trust the opinions of people who make meals of mung beans? Take the word of Weight Watchers: Tofu is approved as a low-cal legume protein. Dieters are allowed two more ounces of tofu than kidney beans, for instance.

Natural-foods cookbooks are crazy for it: Tofu At Center Stage; Tofu Goes West; Tofu Madness; The Book of Tofu; Cook With Tofu and The Heartsong Tofu Cookbook. Reggi Norton, local author of The Soy of Cooking, recommends her "Nearly Chicken Tempeh Salad" as an easy initiation recipe. (A revised edition is available at natural- food stores around town.)

At Hugo's, a slick health-food supermarket in Chevy Chase, frozen tofu lasagna is advertised as having 286 calories per serving. The banana "no-creme pie" is made with tofu. Heat-and-serve tofu burgers go for $1.75.

Dress it up, camouflage it, do anything to avoid confronting the substance in its natural state: boring. The recipes are endless.

Tofu con fettucini, tofu loaf, tofu shrimp casserole. Marinated, curried, steam-fried, broiled or baked tofu. Creamy or chewy, tofu croquettes, tofu milkshakes, tofu Reubens, scrambled tofu breakfast. Tofu guacamole, canneloni, jerky; tofu brownies and apple pie.

y But will the carnivorous American public be moved? As legumes go, soy lacks commercial appeal. Kraft is looking at tofu "in the laboratory stage," but believes it's seen by consumers as something of a joke.

Dannon has it "on the back burner," according to Tim Metzger, director of planning and new product development, who also noted the image problem. He cautions that it took plain yogurt 40 years to get some respect. The ad campaigns and supermarket presentation will be crucial, Metzger said, since, right now, "it has the attractiveness of a GI mess kit."

To be sure, the conglomerates will be there when the public is ready. Perhaps the commercial is already on tape:

"Tofu! It isn't just for hippies anymore."

Homemade, it's a headache. Some trend followers who invested in yogurt makers a few years back haveeswitched to wooden-box tofu makers. It takes nothing but time, darkness, moisture and a solidifier (like natural nigari or calcium sulfate) to produce 'fu for thought.

The culture ferments, the bacteria simmer and squoosh. Before long, you've got an avant garde appetizer. A kit manufactured by The Learning Tree sells for $18.41 -- mahogany press, filter bag, cheesecloth and 16-page instruction booklet -- everything but the soybeans. But why bother, say the regulars, when perfectly good tofu is available at a dozen stores around town?

The very freshest just might be found in the tin can on the metal chair in the back of Mee Wah Lung's in Chinatown. Jean Lee makes it daily in the grocery store that was her grandfather's at 608 H Street NW. She charges 15 cents per two-inch square.

"Cheaper than chewing gum," she notes.

Most of the area's restaurants get their supply here or from New China Supply Company down the street, where David Luk sells by the thousand pieces, $7.10 per can. Now that's a lot of tofu. 'FU FOR THOUGHT

Open University teacher Melodie Phipps' next tofu classes are scheduled for January 18 and February 27. Call 966-9606 for registration information.

WHAT'S-YOUR-BEEF DEPARTMENT: Cookbook author Gary Landgrebe's recipe for baked tofu steaks calls for two pounds of firm tofu, drained. Cut each section in half vertically and horizontally to make four pieces approximately 1/2 x 1 1/4 x 2 1/2 inches. Mix in a small bowl: 1 cup soy sauce 3 cloves garlic, minced 1 tbsp. flavorful oil (peanut, sesame, toasted sesame) 2 tbsps. each vinegar and honey

Pour the soy sauce mixture into a 12 x 15-inch baking dish and marinate for one to four hours, turning occasionally. Place the marinated tofu on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Bake at 500 degrees for 35 to 60 minutes, turning once halfway through. Hot or cold, serves four (probably more if they are first-time tofuers).