Tofu is one of those foods we wish we liked because it is so good for us. A bean curd made from a milky extraction of soy beans, tofu is somewhat like a mild, custardy cheese. For centuries it has been a dietary mainstay and a major source of protein in China and Japan.

In these days of nutritionally concerned consumers, bean curd remains high on almost all lists of healthful and nutritious foods. It is not linked with cancer, obesity, high blood pressure or clogged arteries. It is low in saturated fat, free of cholesterol and is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. And it is very rich in high quality protein, rivaling poultry, fish and red meat.

It is also inexpensive, readily available in a variety of forms, and lends itself to a great number of culinary uses.

With all tofu has going for it, and all the health hazards associated with the consumption of meat, it's a wonder we don't have tofu counters alongside meat counters at the supermarket. But human beings like what they are used to, and tofu, with all its nutritional advantages, is strange to the western palate, unlike anything we know and enjoy.

The adjectives often used by Americans to describe tofu also probably discourage many people from trying it -- bland, mushy, flavorless, squishy, beige. Now compare that with the description of a piece of grilled steak -- tender, juicy, rich, fragrant, red. Even if we disregard the other characteristics, one must admit that red has a lot more going for it than beige.

But ask an ardent tofu aficionado to describe tofu and you will get quite a different picture -- subtle, silken, delicate, creamy, snowy. Now that sounds much more tempting, and the more acquainted you become with tofu, the more favorably you will regard it. Tofu plays both starring and supporting roles in hundreds of delicious dishes. Though tofu comes freeze dried, deep fried, in pouches, burgers, cutlets and a number of other forms, the most commonly available tofu comes in either firm or soft chunks. It is water packed or vacuum packed in plastic and available in supermarket produce sections. It can also be found in tubs of water in Oriental grocery stores. The firmer type can be cubed and gently incorporated into stir-fried dishes. The softer form can be pureed and used as a base for sauces, soups and dips or pressed under a weighted plate and used like the firmer type. Once tofu has been opened, it can be kept in a covered container of fresh water in the refrigerator for up to a week.

SPICY SICHUAN TOFU (4 servings)

This recipe is a variation on a classic Sichuan dish called Ma Po Doufu. Loosely translated, this means Pock Marked Grandmother's Bean Curd. It is named after the old pock-marked granny who ran the restaurant in Chengtu where it is supposed to have originated. It is always very spicy and hot and filled with rich contrasts in texture and flavor. Easy to prepare, it may convert even the most ardent bean curd skeptic.

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/4 pound minced pork

2 teaspoons salted black beans

4 scallions, thinly sliced

8 dried black mushrooms, soaked, drained (reserve liquid), stemmed and quartered

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespons hoisin sauce

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons Hunan chili paste with black beans

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 cup chicken stock

3 cakes firm bean curd, rinsed, patted dry and cubed

2 teaspoons cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon scallion tops, chopped for garnish

Heat the oil in the wok and stir-fry the pork, salted beans and half of the scallions for 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms, garlic, hoisin, 1/4 cup of the mushroom liquid, soy sauce, Hunan chili paste, sugar and stock and stir to combine. Gently stir in the bean curd and simmer 2 to 3 minutes over medium heat. Add the rest of the scallions and the cornstarch mixture and cook until just thickened. Sprinkle with sesame oil and chopped scallion tops and serve immediately with rice.