Bean curd has a 2,000-year history as a dietary staple all over the Far East and in recent years has developed a following in this country. Less known is a byproduct of bean-curd production that is rich in protein, high in calcium and iron, low in calories, cholesterol-free and as versatile a food as necessity requires and imagination allows -- bean curd skins.

The familiar blocks of smooth white bean curd are made from dry yellow soybeans that have been soaked in water, crushed, boiled and strained. The resulting soy "milk" is heated and a coagulant is added to make the bean curd that has become a common sight in supermarkets in these days of health-conscious eating.

Before the coagulant is added to the hot soy milk, a thin skin forms on top, much like the skin that forms when cow's milk or cream is heated. Like the milk skin, bean curd skin is richer than the milk itself. This very thin skin, carefully lifted off and hung up to dry, is called tiem jook by the Chinese, yuba by the Japanese. In English it goes by the various names of bean curd or tofu skin, bean curd sheets and bean curd robes.

With bean curd skins, thinner is better, and the most valued is gossamer sheer. Oriental groceries stock them dried in a variety of forms such as flat sheets, rolls, small rectangles, strips, circles and folded sticks. They last almost indefinitely without refrigeration, but they are brittle and break easily. They must be softened by a soak in warm water, with the time varying from 5 to 45 minutes depending on the thickness.

Some groceries also sell fresh and frozen bean curd skins, more flavorful and easier to handle than dried. Though the fresh skins occasionally may be found in the refrigerator section of the store, the grocers usually freeze the two-to-a-package large circles in order to lengthen their shelf life. The frozen skins, manufactured to be sold frozen, taste good, too, but tear more easily. Connoisseurs prefer both of these to dried.

Bean curd skins first gained popularity millenia ago in the cuisine of Chinese Buddhists, strict vegetarians who used the mild-flavored skins as an imitation meat. Today people all over the Orient, vegetarian or not, substitute the skins in stir-fry dish recipes calling for chicken, pork, beef or abalone. The bland skins soak up the spices, while the satisfyingly chewy, meat-like texture of the bean curd skins gives the impression that the dish contains meat.

So-called mock Peking duck or goose, made of layers of bean curd skins and vegetables, are a tradition. As a wrapper for mixtures of chopped vegetables (meat and seafood, too), flat sheets of bean curd skin are more nutritious and unusual than the more familiar wonton and eggroll skins. Simply spread the food mixture along one edge of the skin, roll it up and seal the other edge with beaten egg or flour-water paste before steaming or deep frying. Steamed, as they are in the dish poetically named Yellow Birds, the skins become wrinkly and tender. Fried, as in a lobster roll, they taste crisp and delicious.

Steamed bean curd sticks, formed of rolled and folded sheets, lend substantiality to a bowl of vegetable broth. Or deep fried, then added to any stir-fried dish, they contribute texture and protein. "Slice type" dried bean curd (small rectangles about the size of playing cards) is a slightly sweet version that also can be fried and eaten as a crunchy snack like shrimp chips are, or soaked and added to any dish.

Not too many of our local Chinese or Japanese restaurants serve dishes made with bean curd skins because most westerners, they say, won't order these unfamiliar items. But anyone adventurous enough to try this nutritious and adaptable vegetable product will find it readily available (as are the other ingredients in the recipes that follow) in Asian markets and easy to use. CHINA HARBOR LOBSTER ROLL (2 servings)

At China Harbor, a seafood restaurant in Rockville, chef Shu Lau prepares this special lobster dish on request. It is not hard to make at home and is a good way to stretch a small amount of lobster.

1 sheet fresh or frozen round bean curd skin

1/2 pound lobster meat coarsely chopped, (shrimp may be substituted)

1/2 pound ground pork

2 scallions, chopped

1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1/3 teaspoon salt

1/6 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon Chinese dark sesame oil

2 teaspoons dry sherry

1 egg, beaten

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons water

Oil for deep frying

Defrost bean curd skin in cold water to cover. Unfold and cut into 4 equal pieces. Combine lobster, pork, scallions, ginger, salt, sugar, sesame oil and sherry and stir until mixture becomes sticky. Divide paste evenly among bean curd skin pieces. Roll up skins, tucking ends in, and brush egg on edges to seal. Combine cornstarch with water to make a very thick paste. Spread paste all over rolls with the back of a spoon or a knife. Heat oil to 350 degrees. Add rolls and fry until inside is cooked and outside is crisp, about 15 minutes. Drain and cut each piece in half on the diagonal. Serve immediately with hot Chinese mustard. MEAT STUFFED BEAN CURD SKINS (4 to 6 servings)

Cooking teacher Ken Hom demonstrated his skills during a recent stop at Kitchen Bazaar in Montgomery Mall. He suggested stuffing bean curd skins with the filling for cucumbers from his book "Chinese Cookery" (Harper and Row, 1986). It works very well.

FOR THE STUFFING:

1/2 pound finely ground pork or beef

1 tablespoon finely chopped scallions

2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger

2 teaspoons dry sherry

2 teaspoons light soy sauce

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 small egg

2 sheets fresh or frozen been curd skins

FOR THE PASTE:

1/4 cup flour mixed with 1/4 cup water

FOR THE SAUCE:

1 1/3 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons dry sherry

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

2 teaspoons sugar

FOR THE GARNISH:

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped coriander

To make stuffing: Combine pork, scallions, ginger, sherry, soy sauce, sugar, salt and egg. Defrost bean curd skins in cold water to cover. Cut each into 4 equal pieces. Divide stuffing equally among the pieces. Roll up skins, tucking ends in. Seal edges with flour paste.

To make sauce: Combine stock, sherry, soy sauce and sugar. Heat sauce in a wok or skillet. Add stuffed bean curd skins, cover and simmer 20 minutes or until completely cooked. Remove to a serving dish. Reduce sauce by 1/3 over high heat and pour over rolls. Garnish with sesame oil and coriander. Pour sauce over and serve. YELLOW BIRDS (3 servings)

The House of Chinese Gourmet in Rockville has recently introduced a vegetarian menu with dishes cooked by chef Li Ming Dai, who specializes in vegetarian cuisine. His version of what is probably the best known bean curd skin dish is a haunting one. Yellow Birds get their name from the shape the stuffed skins take once they have been rolled and tied in a knot. The ends of the package look like a bird's wings.

1 fresh or frozen round bean curd skin

4 dried Chinese black mushrooms

2 1/2-inch square pressed bean curd

1 cup napa cabbage, finely shredded

1/2 cup canned winter bamboo shoots, finely shredded

2 tablespoons soy sauce

4 tablespoons oil

2 1/2 tablespoons dry sherry

Sugar to taste

Oil for deep frying

2 teaspoons cornstarch

4 teaspoons water

Defrost bean curd skin in cold water to cover and cut into 6 pieces. Soak mushrooms in warm water to cover. Discard stems and slice caps finely. Combine mushrooms, pressed bean curd, cabbage, bamboo shoots, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of oil, 1/2 tablespoon sherry and a pinch of sugar. Heat a wok or skillet and stir-fry mixture 5 minutes. Place 1/6 of the mushroom mixture on the skin near the pointed end. Roll up, tucking pointed end under. Tie ends in a single knot (as in the first step of tying a shoelace). Repeat with remaining skin. Heat frying oil until very hot, add yellow birds and cook 10 seconds. Drain on paper towels. Combine remaining soy sauce and wine, 2 tablespoons oil, pinch of sugar, and 1/2 cup water in a wok or skillet. Bring to a boil, add yellow birds, cover and simmer 10 minutes. Add more water if needed. Combine cornstarch and water and add to sauce to thicken to taste. MOCK PEKING DUCK (2 servings)

This dish, another traditional specialty prepared by the chef at the House of Chinese Gourmet, makes a delightful, non-meat appetizer.

8 small dried Chinese black mushrooms

1/2 cup golden mushrooms

3 ounces fresh bean sprouts

1 small carrot, finely shredded

2 to 3 stems bok choy, finely shredded

1 small bamboo shoot, finely shredded

Salt to taste

1/8 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon Chinese dark sesame oil

1 sheet fresh or frozen bean curd skin, cut in half

5 tablespoons flour mixed with 5 tablespoons water

Oil for frying

Soak mushrooms in hot water to cover for 30 minutes. Discard stems and shred caps. Combine with golden mushrooms, bean sprouts, carrot, bok choy, bamboo shoot, salt, sugar and sesame oil. Heat a wok or nonstick skillet, add mixture and stir-fry 5 minutes. Place half the mixture in the middle of each half of the bean curd skin. Fold each one in half from right to left. Fold in ends and spread the flour paste over the top. Fold in half again from left to right to make a rectangle. Coat outside with flour paste. Heat oil to 350. Add rectangles and deep-fry until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Cut in slices. Serve with hoisin sauce. BEAN STICK SOUP (4 servings)

10 bean curd sticks, broken up

6 dried Chinese black mushrooms

4 cups chicken broth

1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger

6 scallions, sliced

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

19-ounce can baby corn

1 pound spinach or 1 head romaine lettuce

1/2 teaspoon Chinese sesame oil

Chopped fresh coriander for garnish

Soak bean curd sticks and mushrooms in separate bowls in hot water to cover for 15 minutes. Discard mushroom stems and slice caps. Strain mushroom liquid and bring to a boil with broth, ginger, scallions, sugar and soy sauce. Add mushrooms and bean curd sticks and simmer 15 minutes. Blanch corn in boiling water for 2 minutes and add corn to soup. Add spinach or lettuce and cook until just wilted. Stir in sesame oil. Sprinkle with coriander. STEAMED FISH WITH BEAN CURD STICKS (4 to 6 servings)

5 large dried Chinese black mushrooms

1 cup oil

2 ounces dried bean curd sticks, broken into 2-inch sections

1 pound carp, sea bass, sea trout or other firm, white meat fish, cleaned

2 ounces thinly sliced pork

2 tablespoons dry sherry

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 cups chicken broth

3 slices fresh ginger root

2 scallions, cut in 1-inch slices

1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander

Soak mushrooms in warm water to cover for 30 minutes. Discard stems and cut caps into 3 slices. Heat oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Drop in bean curd sticks, 2 pieces at a time, and fry 2 seconds or until they puff up. Remove before they burn and drain on paper towels. Soak fried bean curd sticks in hot water to cover for 5 minutes or until soft. Rinse with warm water to remove excess oil.

Pour off all but 2 tablespoons oil from wok, heat, add fish and fry over medium heat until both sides are golden brown. Transfer fish to a casserole and combine with bean curd sticks, pork, sherry, soy sauce, sugar, broth, ginger and scallions. Cover and simmer over low heat 20 minutes. Uncover, garnish with coriander and serve immediately.

Adapted from "Chinese Seafood Cooking" by Stella Lau Fessler (Signet, 1981) FUKIEN STUFFED SHRIMP IN BEAN CURD SKINS (6 to 10 servings)

In "Chinese Cooking Secrets" (Doubleday 1983), written with Alaxandra Branyon, cooking teacher Karen Lee makes Chinese cooking seem as easy as grilling hamburgers with her detailed and foolproof recipes.

FOR THE BUTTERFLIED SHRIMP:

10 ounces medium shrimp

2 tablespoons sherry

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

FOR THE STUFFING:

6 ounces shrimp, shelled and minced

1/2 cup minced water chestnuts

2 scallions, chopped

1 tablespoon water chestnut powder

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon sugar

4 dried half moon shaped bean curd skins

FOR THE PASTE:

1/4 cup flour

1/4 cup water

FOR FRYING:

4 cups peanut oil

FOR THE SPICY DIPPING SAUCE:

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon Japanese rice vinegar

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Chinese red vinegar

1/2 teaspoon Chinese sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon Chinese chili sauce

To butterfly shrimp: Partially shell the 10 ounces of shrimp, leaving the last section and tail on. Cut shrimp from the underside, almost through to the back but not all the way through. Turn shrimp over and make 3 vertical cuts across the back. Flatten each shrimp with the side of a cleaver. Rinse under cold water and drain on paper towels. Combine 1/2 tablespoon sherry and 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce and dip each shrimp in the marinade on the split side. Marinate shrimp at room temperature for 1/2 hour or refrigerate for up to 12 hours.

To make stuffing: Combine minced shrimp with water chestnuts, scallions, remaining soy sauce and sherry, water chestnut powder, pepper, ginger and sugar. Layer bean curd skins between damp kitchen towels for 10 minutes. Cut into 3-inch wide strips, lengthwise. Place 1 heaping teaspoon of stuffing on the split side of each butterflied shrimp. Place shrimp at one end of bean curd strip and fold diagonally. Combine flour and water and seal strips with the paste. Fry immediately or refrigerate in a single layer until needed. Bring to room temperature and fry.

Place a wok or large skillet over high heat for 1 minute. Add oil and turn heat to medium until oil reaches 350 degrees. Turn heat to high. Add bean curd skin packages, 4 at a time, and fry 2 minutes, turning once. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately with spicy dipping sauce.

To make dipping sauce: Combine light and dark soy sauce, vinegars, oil, sugar, ginger, garlic and chili paste. Keeps, refrigerated, 1 month. BUDDHA'S DELIGHT (6 servings)

In "World of the East Vegetarian Cooking" (Knopf, 1981), Madhur Jaffrey gives a recipe for the traditional Buddhist Chinese New Year dried and fresh vegetable dish that bears little resemblance to the greatly simplified version served in most Chinese restaurants in the U.S. This recipe is adapted from hers, substituting more familiar ingredients for some of the more exotic ones such as hair seaweed, ginko nuts and dried jujubes that she suggests.

6 dried Chinese black mushrooms

Salt to taste

5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon oil

2 ounces cellophane noodles

2 tablespoons tree ear fungus

4 rectangles dried bean curd skins, 5-by-1 1/2 inches each

19-ounce can baby corn

2 slices fresh ginger

2 scallions, 1 cut into 2-inch lengths, the other into fine slivers

1/4 cup coarsely julienned carrot

10 snow peas

1 cup vegetable stock (or substitute chicken broth for a non-vegetarian dish)

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 cup thinly sliced Chinese cabbage

2 teaspoons Chinese dark sesame oil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander

Soak mushrooms in a small saucepan in 1 cup hot water for 30 minutes. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, add salt and the 1 teaspoon oil and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes. Discard stems and cut mushrooms in half. Strain water and reserve.

Soak noodles in 6 cups cold water for 30 minutes. Drain.

Soak tree ear fungus in 1 cup hot water for 30 minutes. Drain and rinse under running water. Cut bean curd skin crosswise into 3 pieces and rinse in hot water. Blanch corn in hot water for 2 minutes.

Heat remaining oil in a wok or large skillet over medium heat. Add ginger and 2-inch lengths of scallion. Stir-fry until brown. Remove and discard ginger and scallion. Add tree ears and stir once. Add carrot, snow peas and mushrooms. Stir-fry 1 minute. Add noodles, bean curd skin, stock, 1/2 cup of the mushroom water, salt, soy sauce and cabbage. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes.

There should be some liquid on bottom of pan. If not, add more mushroom water. Add sesame oil and stir. Sprinkle with slivered scallions and coriander. Can be prepared ahead and reheated.