FOR PEOPLE who live in exile, the food of their native countries is vitally important. Recreating old familiar meals often provides them with the keenest -- and sometimes the only -- link to their pasts.

There is a Slavic sentimentality as well as strength to Maya Aksyonov, a Russian who immigrated to America five years ago with her husband, author Vassily Aksyonov. For her, finding the necessary ingredients to prepare the Russian dishes they both desire takes a lot of time. But for the Aksyonovs and their many Russian ,emigr,e friends (as well as for those Americans lucky enough to be invited to their feasts), it is clearly worth the effort.

"In Washington there are no Russian markets," Maya Aksyonov said reproachfully. "There is no place for me to buy what I need. In Brooklyn -- in Brighton -- where there is a large Russian community, I can find caviar that is reasonable . . . Sometimes I take the car and go to a market outside Baltimore, which has a Russian food section.

"And I do like Columbia Road shops . . . And I like the vegetables at my Safeway. Adoption of a Safeway is the start of any naturalization process . . . Usually I buy my meat from Larimer's and very nice pastries from Suzanne's. It takes me much time, but I am finally learning how to find what I need . . .

"Sometimes when I'm walking from shop to shop, I think I would like to open a Russian market with a little caf,e attached to it. There are certainly enough Russians in Washington to use such a place. It's a wonderful idea, and I think about it a lot, but I don't have the money to do that.

"I like to make very large parties because lots of different types of people make a party interesting. I like best to have about 40 people. There are many Russians in Washington -- people from the second migration. We are from the third migration and had only read about the people from the second since were were so young when they left. But now we are getting to know them. . . . And in Washington, many Americans speak Russian -- diplomats, journalists, scholars, academics from the universities here.

"So, since we only have a small table, then I must make a buffet. I make borscht, piroshki with mushroom and meat, pelmeni (Siberian dumplings) and blini, which I serve with smoked fishes, herring (Russian herring -- not American), red and black caviar and sour cream. All of us Russian ,emigr,es make Russian food for each other. This lets us receive memories of our homes, our childhoods, everything from the past. It is very evocative. Sometimes when I am walking in the streets I smell something that reminds me of my childhood, maybe some food my mother used to make for me when I was sick.

"When we first came to Washington we had nothing. We rented an unfurnished apartment in Southwest. Then we went to buy a bed and a table with chairs. Every day I waited for them to arrive. They did not arrive. Vassily telephoned the shops. They say everything will arrive. They do not arrive. It is like in Russia. We wait and wait. We are sleeping on the carpet and we eat on newspapers on the floor. We lived like students except that we are middle- aged."

The Aksyonovs now live in a Northwest Washington apartment that is decorated with memorabilia, posters, paintings and pictures from their Russian lives. Vassily Aksyonov, a novelist, is the author of Ticket to the Stars, and two of his recent novels, The Island of Crimea and The Burn, have been published here.

Maya Aksyonov, trained as a political scientist in Moscow, is now struggling to learn the English language as well as the culture of America. She also worries because her 14-year- old grandson, who lives with hi mother in Los Angeles, doesn't know how to read or write Russian and prefers hamburgers, french fries and cokes to Russian cooking.

However, with Slavic resignation and laughter, Maya Aksyonov continues learning about America while scrounging through Washington markets looking for ingredients essential to the Russian dishes she prepares with love and longing. MAYA AKSYONOV'S PELMENI

1/2 pound lean ground beef

1/2 pound lean ground pork

2 onions, chopped

Pepper and salt to taste

BREAD DOUGH:

2 cups flour

1 egg

1/4 cup water

Salt

Mix together the meats, onion and salt and pepper.

Mix the flour, egg and water together to form a dough. Roll it out very thin and cut it into circles with the rim of a glass. Fill each circle with the meat mixture and pinch the ends closed. Use a beaten egg to help seal the dough if it is too dry.

Drop pelmeni into boiling water until they rise to the top (about 15 minutes).

Serve with sour cream, butter, vinegar and mustard.