Many people know Isabel Lizarazu as the salteña lady — the one at the Oro Valley Farmers Market touting Bolivian empanada-style treats.
Packed with raisins, olives, honey and a host of savory vegetables — and in some cases free-range chicken — the salteñas offer culinary adventure. But tickling taste buds is not all they’re about.
For Lizarazu, the pies represent positive change.
“I’ve realized that politics doesn’t really help the world,” she said. “More important is what people eat.”
Back when Lizarazu raised young children, she noticed the effects that certain foods had on their bodies. Some foods whipped her youngsters into frenzies. Others soothed.
The Bolivian woman cooks up her salteñas as small pockets of wellbeing, meant to contribute to a happier humanity. And the salteñas will eventually aid the world in another way, she hopes, by bringing better medical care to her home country.
Lizarazu plans to use the proceeds from her sales to teach Bolivians with inadequate medical care how to better look after themselves, using traditional healing methods she has picked up from around the world.
“I want to make a demonstration of a different health care than we have in the United States,” she said.
Lizarazu grew up in a wealthy Bolivian family, the daughter of a medical doctor. She witnessed a disconnect between the rich and poor that made doctors reluctant to touch poor people when they were sick.
As a young woman, Lizarazu traveled around the world — to Iran, Germany, Denmark — studying various cultures’ folk medicines and learning about their diets.
In 1982, she came to the United States and became an acupuncturist, midwife, artist, reiki master and collector of heirloom seeds.
“I always need to study something so I don’t get bored,” she said.
In 1984, Lizarazu moved to Tucson, where she began planting Asian medicinal plants with a grant from High Falls Gardens, given through the Arizona School of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. The purpose was to see if the plants would maintain their potency if grown in Southern Arizona.
Lizarazu also set up an acupuncture practice and began prescribing healthy foods for her patients. When she saw that some couldn’t easily fill their prescriptions, because they lived in acute care facilities, she began making the dishes, herself.
“I was trying to transform food to make it easier to digest,” she said.
Those early efforts grew into a full-blown business, “Treasures of the Sun.”
Lizarazu now sells salteñas and other health foods at the Oro Valley and St. Philips Plaza farmers markets and at Aqua Vita and Time Market Deli. She rents a restaurant kitchen in Catalina for her nighttime cooking.
Some produce for her dishes comes from her own garden. Much comes from food cooperatives and local organic farmers.
Lizarazu said her acupuncture practice pays for many of her business expenses so far, but she hopes business will pick up so she can raise some serious money for her work in Bolivia.
“I started the company with the goal to bring help to South America,” she said.
In December, Lizarazu plans to travel to a village in Bolivia near Lake Titicaca. There, she will get acquainted with residents, gain their trust and start practicing traditional medicine. As time goes on, she hopes to bring in people from America who work in the field of integrative medicine. There, they will learn about the area’s native medicine traditions and, in return, pay a fee and see the village’s patients.
“They’re waiting for me,” Lizarazu said. “I already have a room.”
Isabel Lizarazu’s Bolivian salteñas and other products of her company, Treasures of the Sun, are sold at these places:
• Oro Valley Farmers Market at Oro Valley Town Hall, 11000 N. La Cañada Drive
• Tucson Farmers Market at St. Philip’s Plaza, 4380 N. Campbell Ave.
• Aqua Vita Natural Foods at 2801 N. Country Club Road
• Time Market Deli at 444 E. University Blvd.